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Last of the great spy-poets ...

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 22:24 UK time, Friday, 17 July 2009

abraham_cowley.jpgPurcell's misfortune was to set second-rate lyrics to music. This week's concert at the Wigmore Hall was disappointing for this reason. Four of the poets set were anonymous as if no one wanted to own up to 'Oh what a scene does entertain my sight!' with its repeated use of 'all' as a filler for rhythmic purposes - senses all are courted, quarter all around, with all delight etc. Indeed the only lyricist named was Abraham Cowley, the last of the great spy-poets. His verse was good, amusing, but often not really appropriate for anyone's music, not even Purcell's, as jokes never work when you sing them. In 'See where she sits', the hilarious possibility of spoonerising which must also have occurred to Cowley, the lover is likened to a piece of distilling equipment sweating in a gin factory.

The problem is the sentiment. Purcell's music longs for sadness, bitterness, grief, remorse, but the general mood in Restoration London was to be positive, optimistic at least in public, and to make up for the lost time of the Commonwealth when everything, it seemed, was banned - hence all that second rate verse in print. Drydens and Cowleys were a rarity. Indeed, the most prolonged applause of the evening was for a non-verbal item, Concordia's performance of the Sonata in Four Parts No 6, which, alone in the set, is one long ten-minute chaconne building to a peak with the twin violins fizzing sextuplets like laboratory test tubes. Here was Purcell the master of a form he made his own.

The hall was full. Tenor James Gilchrist did his best to impassion the lines with organic ornaments tugged from the harmony like coloured threads, Soprano Sophie Daneman tended to swallow her words a little but came good in the Cowley and bass Roderick Williams provided a solid, resonant bass. He should sing Wondrous Machine.

Purcell shares with Mendelssohn the tendency to set poor poetry to music. Too much of the latter's music accompanies mawkish, sentimental, Victorian words. They both should have been more choosy perhaps. My affair with him is now over although we have agreed to remain frends. Thanks for all comments. Marzipancat is right, Makhabane. Top hats were quite popular in the 1820s. Schubert is wearing one in his picture in the Oxford Companion to Music. Personally I think I look more like Isambard Kingdom Brunel than Mendelssohn. He was, after all, only 20, where I am 53 and slightly overweight.

Now for the Proms...

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