Purcell CDs Showcase Historical Music-Making In Vibrant New Frames

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The John Holloway Ensemble plays Purcell’s Fantazias with sizzling energy and clarity.

Henry Purcell: Fantazias. John Holloway Ensemble. ECM Records: ECM 2249 (Total time 41:45 min.)

Henry Purcell, Dido and Aeneas. La Nuova Musica, David Bates, conducting; Tim Mead, Fleur Barron, Matthew Brook, Nicky Spence. PentaTone PTC: 5187032 (Total time: 59 min.)

DIGITAL REVIEW — Henry Purcell’s Fantazias and his opera Dido and Aeneas, probably written just a few years apart, give us a clear view of the composer’s mastery of both instrumental and vocal writing. New recordings of each serve as a reminder that Purcell’s music can be both a gem of historical performance and a playground for modern exploration.

A foursome led by early-music veteran John Holloway has released the Fantazias on ECM Records. Purcell was all of 20 years old when he wrote and published them in 1680. (He lived only to age 36.) The fantasia genre, meant to sound improvised, was already considered old-fashioned in Purcell’s day. This collection is a conscious attempt to be retro by a young composer who usually worked at the cutting edge of theatrical and dance music. According to Holloway’s program note, Purcell’s were “the very last ensemble fantasias to be published in England.”

The polyphonic score was not labeled for particular instruments, but it was long assumed to be intended for viols. Nowadays, the pieces are usually undertaken by string quartets. But the John Holloway Ensemble is no ordinary quartet. Its members are among the finest Baroque specialists: Holloway, violin; Monika Baer, violin and viola; Renate Steinmann, viola; and Martin Zeller, cello. Surprisingly, the booklet does not list the exact instruments — makers and years — heard on the recording. Zeller, for example, has recorded on a 1673 Jacobus Stainer cello in the past.

This is the best of the recordings of this work from the past few years. The Doric String Quartet released Fantasias on Chandos in 2019, paired with Britten works. The comparatively brittle sound of their modern instruments and the A440+ tuning, combined with the quartet’s breathy tone and swooping, over-emotional phrasing, feels anachronistic. At the other end of the spectrum is the Chelys Consort of Viols, whose 2021 Fantasias on BIS wallows in lugubrious tempos and a muddy tone. The presence of old instruments doesn’t guarantee an engaging early-music experience.

It’s not only the Holloway Ensemble’s faster paces that make their performance sizzle with energy, but also the articulation, sound production, and sophisticated interaction among the players. The quartet touches on every aspect of human drama in these 12 selected movements of the 14 Purcell wrote. Fantazia I, Z. 732, has a flowing motion where it could easily become bogged down in its dissonances. The intensity of No. V, Z. 736, grows until it threatens to crush the listener, but then dissipates just as quickly, a visceral release. Yet the quartet resists rubato or other post-Baroque tricks for expression. Communication is at the heart of No. VIII, Z. 739, as the players pass phrases around like old friends remembering good times together. The fugue in No. III, Z. 734, is stately yet never monotonous.

This is the best kind of early-music recording, one where aspects of rhythm, harmony, and timbre are acknowledged and carefully crafted, but the music never seems musty or past its relevance. Producer Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM, deserves credit for his contribution in vividly distinguishing the sounds of the four instruments.

While Purcell certainly had a gift for writing dramatic instrumental music, he is rightfully celebrated today for his vocal writing, especially in his only opera, Dido and Aeneas, composed before 1689. Dozens of recordings of Dido already exist, so the key is to find something special in a new version, something that proves that there is more to say.

David Bates conducts and plays harpsichord on the new PentaTone release featuring the vocal and instrumental ensemble La Nuova Musica. Some of what he has to say is so subtle that a listener who skips the liner notes would never know. For example, he explains that one reason he chose soprano Giulia Semenzato to sing Belinda was to pay homage to the fact that there were Italian singers at the English court during Purcell’s time.

Yet some of Bates’ ideas are in plain sight and do, indeed, make this a Dido worth an hour of one’s time. First, there is the range of colors Bates draws from the 23-member orchestra. This is in part due to his decisions to spice up the continuo section with theorbo and harp, use a wide range of percussion instruments, and add recorder and oboe to Purcell’s all-strings scoring.

The casting of Dido is another masterful stroke. Singaporean-British mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron has a voice that embodies both the strength of a great leader and the boundless sorrow of a jilted lover. Her Act I aria “Ah, Belinda! I am prest” is arresting, a believable prelude to the melodrama that follows. The multifaceted depth of Barron’s voice is especially striking against the mellow gut strings of Joy Smith’s harp.

While Semenzato’s Belinda is gentle and understanding, her voice has the solidity needed to be the shoulder that a queen can cry on. Alto Avery Amereau makes the Sorceress sound scary yet beautiful. The only weakness in this performance is Aeneas (not a small problem, of course, but not nearly as important in this work as the main women’s roles). British bass-baritone Matthew Brook sounds strained, his voice thinning on long notes.

In smaller roles, tenor Nicky Spence takes a rousing turn as the first sailor, and mezzo-sopranos Helen Charlston and Martha McLorinan make a well-matched pair as the First and Second Witches.

Bates has trained the 14-voice choir of La Nuova Musica to precision in every aspect: phrasing, dynamics, pitch, and emotional expression. Purcell expects Dido’s chorus to do a lot of heavy lifting, both musically and dramatically, and Bates’ forces are equal to the challenge. But it’s the orchestra that gives this recording its brightest sheen.