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The Purcell Weekend

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 14:43 UK time, Monday, 23 March 2009

tavern.jpgOne comment struck home over Purcell Weekend. It was the agreement between Jonathan Keates and Catherine Bott on The Early Music Show that 'Purcell is the greatest writer of art songs before Schubert'. Even with Dowland in the background, this must surely be true. There is nothing in Mozart, Haydn, Bach or Handel to compare with Oh Solitude, which, in its ultra-slow version by Nancy Argenta, provoked the Keates / Bott congruence. The text makes the difference, of course, and Purcell was inspired by the poetry of 'the incomparable' Katherine Phillips, a Restoration hostess who loved the company and conversation of artists. Performances of 'If Music be the food of love', of which only the first nine words are Shakespeare's, Fairest Isle and Music for a While, both with lyrics by Dryden, served merely to confirm the statement. The latter in fact was performed without words in David Rhys Williams' jazz version which was better than Jacques Loussier's. It showed how Purcell's inspiration not only remained intact but also transferred brilliantly to a contemporary interpretation.

I agreed with the conclusion reached on CD Review that Christopher Hogwood's account of Dido and Aeneassurpassed all others although I was very taken with Kirsten Flagstad and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Dido and her handmaid Belinda in the earliest of available recordings (1951). Fashion is circular. We get bored with a prevailing style and seek the new either in total originality, which is rare, or in renewal. Didn't flared trousers come back? Quod erat demonstrandum.

I enjoyed the contemporary works inspired by Purcell's Fantasies on Saturday evening especially Maxwell Davies' One Note Fantasy in which the players were instructed not to play the last note but only to 'fantasyse' it. I thought how modest were the completions and extensions of Purcell's great unfinished work Hear My Prayer and how much they failed to match up to its greatness on Aled Jones' The Choir. I loved the late-night bawdiness of The Early Music Show with Lucie Skeaping in a false beard venturing into a men-only haunt in Southwark to hear some genuinely drunk singers glow with laughter as they sang some of Purcell's very long prick-songs. It is somehow comforting that some words are just as rude now as they were then.

Incidentally, I read in some listings magazine last week, forget which, that Purcell's birthday is on September 10. I am sure no one has solved the mystery of Purcell's birth but it is possible I missed the result of some new research. Is there news? Could some Purcell scholar out there report in?

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