Notes by Steve Bryant
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) died 300 years ago this month — Nov. 21 to be exact — giving rise to a worldwide celebration of his brief and glorious life. His fame has never been greater, and yet the record numbers who will hear his music this year pale in comparison to those commanded in a single broadcast performance of The 3 Tenors.
Of course, you have to cut Purcell some slack. His manager was not without marketing savvy — his published works bore the snappy title Orpheus Britannicus — but without access to worldwide TV broadcasts and modern merchandising, the poor guy cannot be expected to compete.
Thus, tonight’s program combines the best of both worlds — sublime music and commercial opportunism — in an attempt to raise his profile (and muster a paying audience).
Why three countertenors to honor Purcell? Aside from one-upping The 3 Tenors, the countertenor voice is the voice of Purcell, who also sang bass. In fact, Purcell often composed for the countertenor, a male alto produced with a well trained falsetto that shares the high range of the operatic tenor but can go well beyond. This concert probably is the first time three countertenor soloists have appeared together in a Seattle concert.
The centerpiece of the program is John Blow’s monumental “Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell,” the most famous of several concerted tributes to the composer. Blow set a text by England’s Poet Laureate John Dryden (1631-1700) with one exception: Blow stopped short of describing Purcell as “God-like,” instead opting for “matchless.” (After all, he was in the employ of the church.)
The 20-minute work was composed by Purcell’s adoring teacher for the plaintive combination of two countertenors, two recorders and continuo (harpsichord and cello). Unknown is whether the hiccuping motif for the phrase “Drink in the music with delight” is a reference to Purcell’s fondness for drink.
Like Mozart, Purcell was one of those prodigious early bloomers who died young, but only after an enormous output that earned him an enduring reputation as England’s greatest composer. Aside from Blow’s tribute to the man who replaced him as organist at Westminster Abbey, the program includes some of Purcell’s greatest hits. Chief among them are “Sound the Trumpet” and “Strike the Viol” — both drawn from the 1694 “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary,” the 17th-century equivalent of musical evenings at the White House.
Rivaling today’s cross-gender rage is the hilarious and rarely performed Purcell dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa, in which our countertenor Dean Suess plays the reluctant damsel to David Stutz’s insistent, amorous suitor. The dialogue appears in “The Fairy Queen,” a semi-operatic adaptation of Shakespere’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that also includes “One Charming Night,” Secrecy’s song in praise of sensual pleasures.
Stutz, a switch-hitter like Purcell, shifts to the bass line in Blow’s pastoral trio “Cloe Found Amintas” and the fancifully poetic “Hosanna to the Highest,” an ostensibly sacred composition that could well have been 17th century wedding music.
“Triumph Victorious Love,” originally a concerted work with trumpets and kettle drums, proves that we can edit the classics as well as the big 3, and belt them besides.
In “From Rosy Bowers,” one of Purcell’s famous “mad scenes,” every aspect of love sickness is feigned for the benefit of an intended suitor, who looks on in hiding. Steve Bryant performs it with the style of presentational gesture common to Purcell’s time.
“Ah heav’n! What is’t I hear?” puts in a bid for John Blow’s own tricentennial celebration in 2008.
Finally, “O Sole Mio,” a Neapolitan composition that defines the word “schmaltz,” is presented here with historically informed performance techniques (albeit the wrong history). It is a closing nod to the masters — not Purcell and Blow — the ones with the 3 big salaries.