The performances are outstanding and the sequencing inspired.
Katie Greening 2009
When England was famously snubbed as the ‘land without music’ in the early 20th century, there was one name mentioned as our saving grace – Henry Purcell. He was, said one critic scornfully, the last great composer this country had produced in 250 years. This year’s 350th anniversary of his birth is, then, perhaps particularly special for the British – although this disc of Purcell songs, by the French label Naïve, has a noticeably French flavour.
As tenor Paul Agnew and violist Anne-Marie Lasla write in the sleeve notes, Purcell’s music comes with a “distinctly continental twist” – today, apparently, Purcell is very popular with the French, perhaps because in him they can hear something of their own style. On this disc, we hear the continental influence not only within the music, but in the programme: Purcell’s secular songs are punctuated with instrumental works by the composer’s contemporaries, one Italian, one French and one English.
Purcell’s songs are fantastically difficult to bring off – conveying that finely balanced partnership between music and words, but also taking them on an emotional journey. Do it properly and it’s unbearably moving; do it wrong and it’s agonisingly boring. Luckily Agnew gets it just right, and the ensemble behind him is flawless. There is the right blend of restraint and subtlety, with emotional guts – try I loved Fair Celia or the heartfelt Solitude with a wonderfully well-judged solo viol.
Very rarely – even in the long text settings – do attentions wander, such is the power of Agnew’s clear diction. But one small criticism has to be the tendency to over-floridity – such as Ah! How sweet it is to love, which would benefit from more purity and less vibrato. The famous Music for a While setting is a touch slow and static, although beautifully sung.
These are minor quibbles. Generally the performances are outstanding – and the idea of breaking up the Purcell songs with instrumental solos inspired. The guitar works meanwhile – by Corbetta and de Visée and performed by Elizabeth Kenny – are among the most atmospheric on the disc.