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.

Maggie Cole
Maggie Cole

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, fortepiano and harpsichord and make music your career?

We had a piano in my family home and it called out to me at an early age. My much older brother played a bit of jazz piano. This sounded great to my 4 year old ears and made me want to play. Much later, after years of playing “modern” piano, I became very intrigued and then passionate about the possibilities of sound and phrasing that the harpsichord and fortepiano suggest. The instruments themselves have somehow always been my main teachers and inspiration.

Who or what were the most important influences on your playing? 

I loved J S Bach as a child and happened to be growing up when Glenn Gould was making such an impact with his playing of Bach. Other huge influences came from non-Classical music. I was glued to the radio waiting to hear what people like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gay would do next. My first piano teacher was also a huge influence particularly for the degree of seriousness with which she took my young self!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Staying with it. There have been many moments when I’ve felt that perhaps I could be of more use in the world doing a different job. This has faded with age and I feel extraordinarily privileged to have music as my profession.

Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?  

I particularly like the recording of Haydn trios that I made on fortepiano with my very dear colleagues in Trio Goya – Kati Debretzeni and Sebastian Comberti. It still sounds “right” to me and that is an unusual feeling.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in? 

I’m always happiest and most interested when I play in places that don’t get live music very often. Little islands in the very north of Norway stand out as a memory – the audience mostly arrived by boat. Also, the performances that I do in the States in facilities for young offenders are very dear to me. We (the Sarasa Ensemble) can be in a room with terrible acoustics and often, I will be playing a beat- up electric piano but the exchange of creativity with the young people that grows out of these performances is always moving and very exciting.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To play: The Goldberg Variations – always a journey, always rewarding.

To listen to: it’s still really jazz for me. Like many others in the world, I’ll always come back to “Kind of Blue” for sustenance. Also,Nigel North playing Bach on the lute.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

There are way too many to list. A very random and short list would include Tony Levin, Steven Isserlis, Michael Chance, Dionne Warwick……. I could fill many pages!

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Playing Bach at midnight in the Court of Myrtles at the Alhambra. As I played, a black cat crossed the stage, bats swooped overhead and a pine martin rustled in the myrtle hedge looking for dead birds. Unforgettable.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Keep remembering to use all of your experience as food for what you create musically. Paintings, the natural world, cinema – whatever it is that touches you can inform what you play.

What are you working on at the moment? 

Schubert Trios, Bach Preludes and Fugues, Haydn Sonatas and Trios.

What is your most treasured possession? 

Good health. It isn’t to be taken for granted but at the moment, I feel full of energy and able to do all the things I love doing.

Maggie Cole enjoys a richly varied musical life with performances on harpsichord, fortepiano and piano. Born in the USA, she began playing the piano from an early age. A keen interest in early keyboards led her to England where she now makes her home. Maggie’s teachers were Jill Severs and Kenneth Gilbert and she is pleased to be part of this harpsichord “family tree” which began with Wanda Landowska. Best known in Britain through numerous recitals on BBC Radio 3 and appearances at leading festivals, abroad she has performed in venues from Seattle to Moscow, and from Finland to India. In addition to solo recitals – with Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ a speciality, given in London, Paris, Cologne, Basel, Mallorca and Chicago – she frequently performs in duos with partners including Nancy Argenta soprano, Michael Chance counter tenor, Philippa Davies flute, Catherine Mackintosh violin and Steven Isserlis cello. She is also particularly devoted to the Classical chamber music repertoire and explores this with her fortepiano trio, “Trio Goya” (Maggie, Kati Debretzeni, violin and Sebastian Comberti, cello).


David Lee
David Lee

Who or what inspired you to take up editing and performing early music, and make it your career?

I took up a choral scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford on the basis that I seemed to be able to read music well enough and had an inoffensive highish tenor voice that was considered to be quite useful. Having spent my late teenage years obsessed with contemporary music, composing and playing the piano in Glasgow, it was a major culture shock for me to suddenly be catapulted into a hotbed of early music. Singing with the choir under Stephen Darlington, and with the academic interests I developed, under the influence of scholars such as John Milsom, Margaret Bent and David Maw, I began to realise that I enjoyed the music – and both the scholarship and performance in equal quantities. This is what made me realise that I wanted to run my own group (and not to necessarily conduct!), performing music that I love and am able to help bring to life, alongside musicians I respect and enjoy working with.

Who or what were the most important influences on your performing?

There have been many. Stephen Darlington at Christ Church is an enormously motivating director, who was always encouraging but gave me a strong sense of discipline which I desperately needed. John Milsom, who actually discouraged me from attempting to become ‘merely’ a singer (not that I’m good enough anyway!). Jeremy Summerly is such an effortlessly consummate musician and all-round excellent person to work with. He taught me that if the music’s good, then everything else is worthwhile. John Butt, who is currently my academic supervisor, is a paradigmatic figure in balancing performance and scholarship at the highest level. The other members of Oxford Baroque influence me a lot, both practically and ideologically. Without them, I’d probably have got a real job by now.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Being able to convince myself that what I am doing is worth it! Financially, it’s not been easy and I’ve done all sorts of other work to put into my group, Oxford Baroque. Funding isn’t something that’s easy to come by these days, but if you believe it can happen, then you can only blame yourself if it doesn’t.

Which performances are you most proud of?

I think every time we perform as a group, we get better and better, so it’s always the last one.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?

Anywhere with good transport links and a decent pub nearby! Though I think the most impressive place I’ve performed recently was at Le château de Versailles. It’s such a beautiful venue that it distracts you from the ridiculously enormous acoustic.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

I love performing Schütz and Bach. There’s something – different about each of them, of course – about their sense of upholding attention to the text, but with a nuanced mode that brings something more to it, which I find hugely rewarding to sing. A lot of my colleagues are more diverse, but I’m a bit of a geek and collect lots of early music CDs. At the moment, I’m hooked on the Huelgas Ensemble’s Dufay disc, O Gemma Lux.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Lots of them.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experiences are probably not for the right sort of reasons. There was one on a Japanese tour, where at the rehearsal I suddenly realised I’d forgotten to pack black trousers and, without time to buy or commandeer a pair, had to perform in a pair of blue trousers.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

One of the obvious things that I notice is that professional musicians tend to be some of the most intelligent and educated people that I encounter, yet they normally work for relatively small financial rewards considering their skills and dedication. I remember spending a train journey between Oxford and London with Roderick Williams at a time when I was feeling a bit down on my luck. I’d just left Oxford and was puzzled why things weren’t suddenly taking off for me. After explaining how his own career had taken several years to develop, his advice was: ‘If you think the music’s worth it, then it probably is.’ This is a maxim that I like to think of every time I’ve had any doubts about what I’m doing. Also, that it’s important to respect those around you, however old or young they are. You learn quickly that everything is built around respect – for teachers, for fellow performers, for the music itself – and it’s imperative that you don’t get carried away with yourself. There’s always someone better than you out there, so be grateful for the opportunities you’re given.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently doing my laundry between trips away. But more generally, I’ve recently started doing postgraduate research with John Butt at the University of Glasgow. I’m trying to balance this with running Oxford Baroque. At the moment, I’m planning, editing and rehearsing for our concert in the St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival on Tuesday 18 December, with the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. I’ve edited quite a few ‘new’ pieces for this concert and am really looking forward to hearing how they come together with such a large ensemble!

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to be able to balance an academic career with my own performing activities. As I realise that the teachers I’ve encountered are the ones who’ve switched me on to my passions, I’m becoming aware that I’ve enjoyed teaching in a university environment a lot so far and would welcome the chance to do more.

David Lee appears with Oxford Baroque in a concert on Monday 6th May as part of the Oxford Early Music Festival. Further details here

Oxford Baroque
Oxford Baroque

David Lee graduated from the University of Oxford with a first class degree in Music, where he was a Choral Scholar at Christ Church and subsequently a Lay Clerk with New College Choir. Having worked closely with a number of eminent musicians and musicologists over the past few years, he has shown a particular enthusiasm and talent in working on music composed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. He recently completed editing the English-texted anthems of Christopher Gibbons, accompanied by an in-depth commentary – a project which received a first class award from the University of Oxford. He works regularly as an editor for several professional groups. Alongside assisting All Souls fellow, Dr Margaret Bent in her research, which he combines with an increasingly busy career as a freelance singer, working in the UK and abroad with groups including the Academy of Ancient Music, Tenebrae, Oxford Camerata, Chapelle du Roi, Ludus Baroque and Suonar Cantando. David is currently dividing his time between Glasgow and London, whilst working on postgraduate research, editing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German music, at the University of Glasgow, under the joint supervision of Prof. John Butt and Dr David McGuinness.

In addition to co-directing and singing for Oxford Baroque, David’s role with the group involves researching projects, editing the performing materials and managing the personnel for each programme.