To be worthy of our attention a recital of Purcell songs had better offer something special. It had better illuminate Purcell's unique genius; had better present an interesting or stimulating selection with a sound logic for inclusion; had better be of impeccably good technique; had better be expertly interpreted with historically sustainable arrangements; and ideally be of top sonic and recording quality. Victorious Love highlighting Caolyn Sampson's sensitive, expressive, sweet, yet powerful soprano against the very forward sounds of Laurence Cummings (harpsichord, spinet), Elizabeth Kenny (archlute, theorbo) and Anne-Marie Lasla (bass viol) with Sarah Sexton and Andrea Morris (violins) and Jane Rogers (viola) has all of those qualities – and more. In particular, Sampson sings with an understated warmth and authority this collection of favorites from arguably the greatest, surely the most original and beautiful, composer of songs in English before Britten.
The two volumes of Purcell's Orpheus Britainnicus were published after the composer's death – in 1698 and 1702; Ayres for the Theatre in 1697. They were the most significant of the time of such collections and mixed sacred, secular and dramatic pieces. It's likely that this mixture reflects the way such music as this by Purcell was performed in the century or so after his death. Certainly in a domestic environment where the demands of fully- or even semi-staged realizations were too great or otherwise inappropriate. Such material had to have the immediacy and the impact for transfer between these two milieus. Aspiring (as well as accomplished) stage performers had to have the skills to scale such vocal works as these by Purcell; to convey the tension and drama as well as the tenderness and humanity such that the venue ceased to matter as much as the impact of the songs' content. In theatre and drawing room enticing material was needed for the music's performers – if for no other purpose than training. Sampson lives up to this need to interpret the music in ways matching both situations. Listen, for example, to the way she plays with the tempi in "Man is for the Woman Made" (tr.6). It's the thrust of the song, not the staging, that counts. Once you realize that Sampson has this amount and quality of control, the rest of her delightfully unobtrusive style of delivery makes sense. Purcell himself is in the room!
On this generous (over an hour and ten minutes) SACD there are a dozen and a half of some of Purcell's best and most lovely songs… "Sweeter than Roses", "When first Amintas", "Music for a while", "If music be the food of love", "Fairest Isle" and "An Evening Hymn", for example. Sampson sings with freshness and enthusiasm, perception and immediacy. Her tone and articulation are varied, open and intimate in proportion to the requirements of the recital. That is, she is as far away from simply throwing out a sampler in the hope that some of what she offers might stick as she has befriended each of these wonderful songs in their own right.
We know that Purcell – like Handel – created roles for named and favorite singers. Including women singers, whose participation became more common from the Restoration in 1660 onwards. So there is the additional challenge for a performer like Sampson to squeeze out and portray what in each song particularly reflects a personal approach, a strong personality, an obvious specific origin; and what is common to any performer. Then she has to ensure that the two approaches meet. This is something the current CD achieves admirably. By knowing just when to infuse her own enthusiasms, priorities and personality. And by tempering that knowledge standing back to let the beauty, melody and pace of the song come through.
The other aspect of this CD that will strike you is the very strong presence of the instrumentalists. String-heavy, they contribute more than atmosphere and accompaniment. Purcell's writing for a tin can and rubber band would have been heavenly; and these players know that. They bring out the soul of each song, the temper and the character in a quite pleasing way. At times the bass viol of Lasla is perhaps a little too insistent. There are some ornamentations that will strike one as unusual and maybe a trifle wayward. But they work.
And the whole works as a mixed recital. Yet one whose focus is provided by the poignant and at times almost painful beauty of Purcell's melodic invention, the clarity and crystalline delicacy of which is never clouded by over-indulgent expression or too dense instrumental texture. Center stage is Sampson. All the weight is on her shoulders. But she's more than up to the attention and pressure… not only is not a note missed or slurred, but this lack of compromise is itself seductive given the way it's blended so well with her incandescent affection for the gentle opulence of Purcell's writing.
The recording is clear, forward and well-balanced. The SACD well presented with a slim booklet in the usual three languages and the full texts of all 19 songs. Yes, this is a mélange; Yes these songs are widely available elsewhere. But there's a good rationale (eighteenth century practice). And they are all particularly persuasively performed. Recommended.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey