Thursday, January 31, 2013

Handel and Haydn's Best scenes from Purcell

Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer.

Last weekend Handel and Haydn gave props to a composer they've rarely performed in the past - Henry Purcell (perhaps, as is often claimed, the greatest English composer who ever lived) - and dipped a hesitant toe into performance styles that we rarely encounter anymore, the semi-opera and masque.  This meant that the evening was instantly of considerable interest to a critic like me, who often ponders music, theatre, and opera, as well as their various intersections - and I confess that I left the performance highly intrigued, but not consistently satisfied.

This was partly because the works themselves were at times musically brilliant, but to be honest, also somewhat variable (a good deal of the concert was devoted to a masque from The Indian Queen that had to be completed by Purcell's brother Daniel, due to the composer's untimely death).  The lack of full staging for another long sequence from the same work (a kind of semi-opera by Dryden) resulted in a performance that felt rather tantalizingly un-focused (for the effect of masque, I think, is actually connected to its physicalization in a deeper way than that of opera).  The concert was also impacted by the illness of one of its stars, local light Teresa Wakim, whose absence required various roles be sung by members of the H&H chorus (amusingly, as I noted earlier this week, this fact seemed to sail right over the head of Globe critic Jeremy Eichler).  

On top of all this, I sometimes wondered whether other soloists might be suffering from a touch of the sniffles.  Tenor Zachary Wilder sounded far thinner than he had the last time I heard him; indeed, the entire top of his range sounded stretched, and he didn't have the vibrancy I recalled from earlier performances.  Likewise Wakim's replacements simply weren't singing at full force; only Margot Rood seemed in full possession of her sparkling instrument.

Jonathan Best
The great exception to this general rule was bass-baritone Jonathan Best, who made a stunning Boston debut in two of Purcell's most famous scenes: "Scene of the drunken poet" from The Fairy Queen (a kind of incidental masque devised for A Midsummer Night's Dream) and the delightful "Frost Scene" from King Arthur (again, set to a text by Dryden).  Best (at right) proved something like a force of nature - his deep, resonant baritone is the kind of voice that the word "burnished" was coined to describe, and what's more, he's an actor of startlingly command (after seeing this, I'd gladly watch him essay Falstaff, or any number of roles from Shakespeare).  I'm actually not sure I've ever encountered a singer this talented who is also an actor of this stature; Best is nothing less than a phenomenon.

Indeed, in some of these roles he was literally a force of nature - in Purcell's "Frost Scene" from King Arthur, the baritone portrayed "The Cold Genius," a personification of nature in winter, who is stirred from beds of snow to life (and spring) by the power of love.  The vignette, and Purcell's music, are built around the amusing similarity between shivery coughs and the familiar staccato stroke of baroque strings - and the results are deeply bewitching in the manner of the oldest fairy tales. (The score also features perhaps the only fully-sung sneeze in the choral repertoire.) And Best was irresistible, as he was in the even tougher role of the drunken (but self-aware) poet from The Fairy Queen.

Elsewhere the chorus shone brightest.  Purcell was a mysteriously powerful choral writer, and there are some stunning choral passages in The Indian Queen, all of which got the full Harry Christophers treatment here.  Best was in continued fine form, of course (although he actually seemed to be sight-singing at times), and the well-known duet for "Two Aerial Spirits" was given a charming rendition by Margot Rood and Erika Vogel; there were also strong solos from Woodrow Bynum and Donald Wilkinson.  But alas, Christophers didn't draw his usual level of precision from the instrumental ensemble.  The deceptively simple, lightly-dancing rhythms of Purcell are tricky; their casual grace requires a seemingly offhand (but actually utterly precise) syncopation.  Here, however, things were a little too loose at times - although the winds were in better shape than the strings, and Bruce Hall sparkled reliably on the trumpet.  I'd have to say this proved one of the shaggier H&H concerts I've encountered; but its high points were memorable, and I was happy to be introduced to both Jonathan Best and some of the more obscure aspects of Purcell's achievement.

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