Purcell was born in England, worked at the court of the King of England, and was quintessentially English - correct? Well, yes, but it doesn't quite tell the story: Charles II was brought up in France, and the court had distinctly French musical taste. So Purcell's music has strong influences of Lully and the music from the court of Louis XIV, and remains popular in France.
All of which makes his songs a good subject for a cross-channel CD on the French label Ambroisie, recorded in Paris and performed by two English and two French musicians.
Most of Purcell's settings work on counterpoint between the voice (on this CD, tenor Paul Agnew) and a continuo (bass violist Anne-Marie Lasla). These are accompanied by one or both of Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo and guitar) and Blandine Rannou (harpsichord and organ). The interplay between voice and continuo is beguiling: the bass instrument gives shape and structure to the setting, freeing the voice to wander in the Restoration pastures of lovelorn melancholy. This is most clear in my personal favourite song of the collection (and probably the most famous): "Music for a while".
The performances are superb. Paul Agnew's voice is wonderfully clear and pure, he sings with energy and expression and he's utterly believable as our unrequited lover. All the accompanists have the same energy and show off to perfection Purcell's ability to blend voice and accompaniment. They are also each given some solo spots with pieces by other composers of the period as well as Purcell. Being a guitar player, I was particularly taken by the accompaniment to "I see she flies me", which is high energy and reminiscent of much later Spanish music. The recording quality is also out of the top drawer, and the producers are obviously proud of it, since the sleeve notes include a complete list of the equipment used (including several thousand pounds worth of microphones).
One caveat: that this isn't an album that I can listen to all the way through at a single sitting. There's a limit to the amount of complaint about unrequited love that I can tolerate in one piece and only a handful of the twenty songs fall outside this. If you're more of a lover of Restoration poetry than I am, you won't suffer from this.
But that said, this CD is a treat. At its best, this is the loveliest music, and I can't describe it any better than Dryden:
Music for a while shall all your cares beguile
Wondering how your pains were eased
21st November 2009
Here's a link to buy the CD: