Purcell and Handel touch the parts other composers don’t reach
Guest post by Karine Hetherington.
I came to Baroque music late in life and I wonder why. One reason I believe is that for a long time concert houses or musicians, for one reason or another, didn’t feature it or play it. Music programmes drew on composers from the Classical and Romantic eras, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert being the most often played. At the Wigmore Hall in London, it was all about virtuoso piano performances, emotional intensity and famous trios or quartets – or so it seemed.
Early music, on the other hand, was thought to be dry, simplistic and unsuited to modern audiences. Most worryingly, it came across as elitist, only to be enjoyed by the clergy, closed circles of academics and music students.
Nowadays, nothing could be further from the truth as early music is not only being played in churches up and down the country, but in every concert venue worth its salt as well. The early music movement is gathering momentum and newer, younger audiences are being drawn in by musicians of their own age and orchestras, who, like the City of London Sinfonia, have done much to make the genre more accessible. The ‘Come and listen to Couperin on a beanbag,’ strategy has worked wonders for audiences of all ages.
But it’s not all about gimmicks. Singers from the current generation of young performers are keen to sing Purcell and Handel.“He knew how to write for singers,” confirms alto, Laura Lamph, about Purcell. “There is the occasional coloratura, which obviously needs extra preparation”. Tenor Ed Woodhouse echoes this enthusiasm but also talks about the challenges for a tenor. “Many composers of early music have a penchant for writing stratospheric first tenor parts, and these can be extremely difficult to sing”.
The notion of the challenge is undoubtedly the draw for the young singer. But it is not only about flourishes and singing stratospheric high or low notes. A performance can fall flat if the singers don’t inhabit their role. Neither is it about one singer’s performance. Each singer is part of the ensemble of artists and each, whilst trying to deliver a personal best, has to make the other singer look good too. Ed Woodhouse sums it up: “Singers have to be musically sympathetic of each other”. It is easy to see how this coming together to benefit the whole can be attractive for artists. There is no room for a diva mentality singing Purcell’s odes.
As for the emotional side, soprano Cally Youdell points out that “Handel and Purcell are some of the most skilled at portraying intense darkness and despair, as well as effervescent joy”. It is true that Dido singing ‘When I am lain in earth’ in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is probably one of the most beautiful, heart-breaking laments ever written. It is no accident the lament was taken up by top vocal artists in the rock and pop world too.
Ashley Stafford, who directs groups of talented young performers and sings himself, states that vocal artists are eager to perform Purcell for many different reasons. For one thing Purcell is multi-layered. The texts are “celebratory, sacred, devotional” on one level, but it is the music, its “inventive rhythms, ear-tingling harmonies, orchestral and vocal textures” which grab your attention and prise open the emotions. Purcell can be humorous and light-hearted too, and it is “his depth of awareness of the frailty of our existence in a universe of unknowns” which makes him resonate in our souls.
And this is the point, Purcell offers us in his gloriously inventive music a little extra space in these contrary times, to view the world as it really is, good or bad. In our despair his music is a balm, whereas his celebratory ecstatic passages are a reminder that there is great light at the end of the tunnel.
In Guilty Night by Purcell
Go and see the Kensington Olympia Baroque Ensemble perform ‘Celebration and Solemnity’ : The Music of Henry Purcell at Olympia, Hammersmith Road, W14 8UX on 9th November, 7.30pm. Further details and tickets
Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music, and is a reviewer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s sister site ArtMuseLondon.com. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival.