Rowan Pierce - Purcell: The Cares of Lovers - MusicWeb International

‘The Cares of Lovers’ makes an enticing title and opening item for this debut CD album of Purcell songs. The song itself comes from the masque in Timon of Athens in Shadwell’s adaptation of Shakespeare in which Purcell’s Cupid displays virtuoso melismas. Rowan Pierce rides these with ease, demonstrating in turn rapt cares, alarms with almost military gusto, the power of a charm gently yet firmly infused, the affirmation of “ravishing bliss” distinctly enunciated with lightly rolled ‘r’s before a long, languorously experienced melisma of pleasure. She gets the message across with assurance and conviction, backed by the luscious theorbo of William Carter and with just delicate harpsichord support from Richard Egarr. I compared the 1993-4 complete recording by Collegium Music 90/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 0569), a reminder that Cupid is male and was originally sung by a boy. In this recording it’s Iestyn Davies, then a 14 or 15-year-old treble with a lovely tone, ironic sweetness, innocence and charm. To appreciate the irony, consider Raphael’s Cupid detailed from his The Triumph of Galatea, a Cupid more muscular than cherubic, both purposeful and slightly amused. Something of this remains in Davies’ memorable appreciation of the softness and gentleness of the lover’s pain, though generally his relationship to the text is more impassive than Pierce, except that he too offers a lightly rolled ‘r’ on ‘ravishing’. He’s more luxuriantly accompanied by archlute and bass viol.

Far better known is ‘Sweeter than roses’, a masterpiece of a song composed for the anonymous play Pausanias in which that King’s Persian mistress tries to seduce his friend. What’s sweeter than roses is “the dear kiss”, the first one that seals everything, the melismas with semiquavers and demisemiquavers first throbbing and quivering with desire, then blazing forth a stream of quavers and crotchets in release, the signal for the second part of the song which is a jubilant celebration of “victorious love”, the melismas here of a heroic military manner but again lightly applied with tripping assurance by Pierce with nevertheless a telling recall of that kiss and a closing tremulous embellishment of the quaver descents on ‘love’. I compared the 2006 recording by Carolyn Sampson (BISSACD 1536, review), a disc which shares seven songs with this Pierce CD. Timing at 3:21 to Pierce’s 3:07, Sampson’s more expansive treatment of the opening section more magically holds the attention than Pierce’s, softly distilling the experience with a telling pause at the apex of “evening”. The use of bass viol in the accompaniment as well as theorbo for me emphasises the intimate, personal nature of the song; it can also match the voice in trembling more vividly than the theorbo. That said, Pierce’s account offers a fresh delivery and immediacy which is particularly attractive in the song’s second part.

Well known too is the stand-alone song ‘From silent shades’ subtitled ‘Bess of Bedlam’, whose madness it traces. Pierce brightly articulates the introduction with eagerness to deliver the story which gets across the contrast between fields full of flowers and Bess’s fixation on “her lovesick melancholy”. The manic elements of madness are clear, “Bright Cynthia kept her revels late” (tr. 3, 0:58) where the mad song itself begins, and the more endearing depressive ones: the affectionate and also proud remembrance of “In yonder cowslip lies my dear” (1:12) and then the ironic natural repose of “I’ll lay me down and die”. We share the frenzied quality of Bess’s hallucination, “Did you not see my love as he pass’d by you?” (2:31) until she finds calm in accepting the world is mad and she must seek out her own salvation in a zanily positive close. Pierce gets across well the rapid mood swings and the listener’s response, as in meeting any eccentric, hovers between discomfort and amusement. Pierce gives it to us stark and simple. Egarr’s harpsichord becomes suddenly vibrant to illustrate Charon, the ferryman of Hades’ bawling. Sampson parades the song as a tour de force. Her introduction vividly contrasts appreciation of Jove with the “rags” of Bess, making the most of the marked trill on “rags” which Pierce (0:44) confines to a rolled ‘r’. Sampson makes an unforgettably dramatic centrepiece the animals who “warble forth” Bess’s elegy by adding trills to all four descending crotchets of “warble” and adding an octave rise on “forth” to top C, but that to some degree upstages the later high Gs that define the song’s more significant focus on the delusion of love and Bess’s means of happiness. I’m impressed by Sampson’s antics, but they seem just an act. Pierce brings us a Bess concentrating on the process of living, striving to cope.

‘Retir’d from mortal’s sight’ is a song sent to King Richard II at the end of Nahum Tate’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, mirroring the king’s isolation in prison and anticipating his death. Unusually for Purcell, this is a strophic song of three verses. You can focus on how the design and written out ornamentation of the melody enhances the presentation of the text. All the singer has to do to make it effective is to sing it cleanly as written, which Pierce does admirably. Just lute accompaniment adds to the poignant intimacy. Here I compared Judith Nelson’s account published 1985 (Decca 4755292). She adds a little additional ornamentation, but tastefully, and, where Pierce is a focussed onlooker, identifies more emotively with the shepherd’s situation. Having a voice with more vibrato aids this, as does a bass viol as well as harpsichord accompaniment. A bonus is Nelson’s telling inflection of the song’s most extended melisma towards the end of every verse so you become aware how it illustrates the scene: the flock dolefully hanging around in the first verse, the shepherd softly groaning in the second and his dying sigh in the third verse.

‘Celia has a thousand charms’ is a song in The Rival Sisters provided to comfort a deserted lover by suggesting desirable women should be avoided because they are inconstant. It’s terse yet strikingly contrasted. Again, the ornamentation is written out, the melismas here fuller than in the previous song, culminating in one of forty continuous semiquavers at the end of the first section to illustrate the magic conveyed by the loved one’s face, featuring magical breath control from Pierce. This fawning contemplation is presented by Pierce with beaming serenity, but the second section of the song is founded on a resolute parade of crotchets as the singer protests at wretched fate, denouncing the loved one’s falsehood and warning any others who might wish to woo her. The transformation is convincing and chilling. Compare Judith Nelson, in the same Purcell Theatre Music box set as the previous song (this recording was first published in 1981), timing at 2:19 to Pierce’s 2:36, that just slightly faster tempo making the first section more excited and the advice of the second, more lightly applied, less hectoring yet no less sincere.

‘Dear pretty youth’ is the only song certainly by Purcell in a revival of Thomas Shadwell’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s a fun, cheeky setting in what could be a tragic situation. Dorinda finds her loved one Hippolito out cold, having been wounded fighting Ferdinand because he wants to have Dorinda and Miranda. He could be dead, but Dorinda just sees him as flesh. We hear Version B of the Purcell Society edition volume 21, the anthologized rather than single sheet publication. Pierce fully enters into the spirit of the song, being amused, playful, coquettish and eager, ogling and thinking of being with the man all night without sleep, with a nice variation of pace as if salivating over the prospect. When she finds him cold, it’s time for action and you can imagine Pierce is squeezing him the eleven times she sings “hug”. I compared Emma Kirkby’s recording of 1982 (Eloquence ELQ 4767467, now only available as a download). Timing at 1:55 to Pierce’s 2:11 makes her seem more innocent in her bright response, more instantly twinklingly reactive, less considered than Pierce, more jocular in her mischief, the use of a prominent bass viol as well as the harpsichord Pierce alone has, adding to the humour. However, Pierce’s emphasis on opportunism is closer to Restoration mores. Of these enough to say, as William Carter’s witty notes inform, the first singer was aged twelve!

Carter is silent about ‘A Ground in Gamut’ as his notes focus on Purcell’s songs, but he does join Egarr here, adding his theorbo to a piece I don’t think has previously been recorded other than on harpsichord alone. Yet both are plucked string instruments and can play chords as well as individual notes. I’m buying then, that in households where both were present, both could enjoy such pieces together. This Ground, the recurring melodic pattern which is the piece’s foundation, is a stepwise descent of five notes, then two stepwise ascending to allow for an instant drop to the octave below the pattern’s starting note to create a perfect cadence and to compass the gamut, the whole musical scale. The interest in the piece comes from the contrapuntal and rhythmic high-jinks played out above this foundation. There are eight statements of the ground. By the sixth (tr. 7 1:37) it has transferred from the bass to the treble part and by the eighth (2:04) the counterpoint is mixed with the statement. To get us familiar with the Ground we’re given two dummy runs: Carter plays the Ground, Egarr doodles gradually towards a melody over it. When we get to the first statement in Purcell’s published version (0:27), the melody is accordingly experienced in full flower, cavorting by the second statement (0:42) and gleeful by the third (0:56). I was a mite disappointed when the ground reaches the treble part (1:37) Egarr, consistently maintaining his exquisite, refined approach, doesn’t parade this as a triumph. Yet what is clear and enjoyable is the transfer of the melodic thrust from the treble in statement 5 to the bass in statement 6. The eighth statement doesn’t quite work either when the ground incorporates the melodic fioritura because the theorbo can’t manage semiquaver runs so the harpsichord has to cover them. But overall this is a refreshing performance, partly because it changes the character of the piece. I compared it played on harpsichord alone by Egarr in 2007 (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907428, now only available as a download). With just his fingers and articulation to consider Elgar is more energetic, even racy in his projection of the melodic and rhythmic changes so the piece comes across more as a rapid-fire set of variations.

The song ‘If music be the food of love’ exists in three versions, the one sung here being the third, most elaborate and rhetorical, offering a cornucopia of clusters of semiquavers and demisemiquavers illustrating music’s joy, power to move or save, pleasures, fierceness and simply music itself, conveyed by Pierce with a stunning, quivering dexterity. At the end a lovely melisma on “save” is like a fervent prayer, yet overall I feel Pierce’s assertive presence a little over-the-top, but so, you might say, is this final version by Purcell. Sampson, in comparison, shows ‘less is more’ through a sedulously reflective approach which is paradoxically able to incorporate additional ornamentation for repeated elements that’s in keeping with the florid whole.

With ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’ comes a song over a ground, of which there are 28 statements while the voice freely flows above and has more precedence than in the purely instrumental grounds because the text gives the soprano line more power. I heartily agree with Carter’s note that the text, a translation by Katherine Philips of a French poem by Saint-Amant, is a convoluted one but the importance of solitude to creative artistry is a theme which draws a fervent and memorable response from Purcell. It’s worth grappling with the convolution because the poem’s and song’s changes of perspective are what make it poignant and disturbing: I adore solitude firstly because it’s an antidote to my restless thoughts. Secondly, I like to inspect ancient trees still fresh and green. Thirdly, I like looking at hanging mountains, though they tempt the unhappy to suicide and I empathize with them. Fourthly, solitude is a quick way of being at one with creativity. But fifthly, it makes me conscious of my own lack of imagination. What’s sung with burning regret in Purcell’s setting here, near the end, is “Because it needs must hinder me/From seeing and from serving thee”. For me the song seems here to hint at crossing over from a secular to a sacred environment, not the lack of study of Apollo as the god of music, poetry and the arts, but of Christ. In the context of this CD this links with the devotional songs that follow.

Pierce is joined only by Carter’s lute which gives a feel of intimacy within solitude. Carter provides an improvised lute introduction before the published music starts at (tr. 9) 0:37. Pierce’s account is one of evident sincerity and earnestness. Especially striking is the appreciation of the “fresh and green” trees and the empathy with the “hard fate” that prompts suicide. But in going for a searingly dramatic, full-throated, you could say 21st century statement, there’s an avoidance of musical artifice such as the trills suggested in the Purcell Society edition. This is to abstain from 17th century creative artistry. Sampson’s recording takes the opposite view: a smooth approach, plenty of trills, more than the Purcell Society’s, plus some appoggiaturas, including one on the final note, a more spacious approach, timing at 5:23 to Pierce’s 4:56 if you take out Carter’s improvised lute introduction for Pierce, more recollected in tranquillity, a celebration of artistry and I like the way Sampson softens the end from “Because it needs must hinder me”.

‘Hears not my Phillis’ is also called The Knotting Song after its refrain. Purcell wrote few strophic songs but here he uses the repetition of the music to comic effect. In every verse the lover tries ingenious strategies to woo Phillis. In every refrain Phillis continues knotting her fringe regardless. Pierce as lover brings an excited declamatory manner. As Phillis she’s calmly absorbed and Carter’s lute accompaniment, now Egarr’s harpsichord in the verses has been banished, reinforces her contentment. After the third verse, in which the lover’s passion reaches its zenith, a longer pause is made, the silence emphasising the lack of response, a nice touch. There’s only one other recording of this song available with original accompaniment as I write in April 2019, the 1993 one made by Susan Gritton (Hyperion CDA 66720). I like the slightly faster tempo of this, timing at 2:31 to Pierce’s 3:00, which brings more lilt to Gritton’s smooth refrains, but I prefer the greater contrast Pierce finds in the verses where Gritton is more uniformly pert.

‘O lead me to some peaceful gloom’ is sung by Bonvica, the younger daughter of Bonduca (we know her as Boadicea), the Queen after whom John Fletcher’s play, here much adapted, is named. After Bonduca’s defeat in battle, all the daughter can expect is an honourable death rather than submitting to the Romans. In anticipating this her song celebrates masochism, “peaceful gloom”, a typical, oxymoron-like Restoration concept. Pierce makes this anticipation achingly and poignantly quite fast and youthful. In this lute-song she and William Carter effectively make much of the silence, twice, before the word “hush” as if her racing heartbeat suddenly stops. The second part of the song, “There let me soothe my pleasing pain” (tr. 11, 1:16) (now there’s a classic oxymoron) has a frenzied, upbeat quality, in this case with the sentiment ‘As I’m going to die, I won’t need to worry any more about war’. But in repeating this worry she clings to its familiarity. The song ends with the lover’s paradox, at the same time conquering and remaining in thrall. In the context of this disc I was struck that this is a more mature view than the ‘victorious love’ alone of Sweeter than roses. I compared the 2008 recording by Emma Kirkby with Jakob Lindberg, lute (Bis BISCD 1725). Kirkby sings the first part a touch slower, 1:11 against Pierce’s 1:07, with a faster second part, 1:21 against Pierce’s 1:27. The first part of the song benefits from Kirkby’s more sorrowing tone and spacious phrasing and her second part’s greater impetuousness I also found preferable to Pierce’s plainer approach, yet it’s that directness that makes Pierce’s first part affecting.

‘She loves and she confesses too’ is another song on a ground, this one stated 25 times. As with ‘A Ground in Gamut’ earlier, this CD gives us dummy runs to get us familiar with it, 4 statements here and thrice more at the end as an instrumental postlude. Its chief benefit is to provide a structure which the voice can cut across irregularly, giving the words a sense both of exuberance and independence which Pierce relishes. It’s the earliest song on this CD, a young composer’s revelling in the triumph of love, unabashed by attempts to cloud its fully established state. In 2008 Emma Kirkby with just Jakob Lindberg, lute (Bis BISCD 1725) approached this song slightly more quietly which paradoxically gives it an even deeper-seated confidence. Timing at 1:52 to Pierce’s 2:49, restricting themselves to just one dummy run of the ground at the start and no postlude or repeat of the final phrase, Kirkby and Lindberg’s account goes with more swing and Kirkby enjoys herself more in her scorn of any lurking challenges.

The second purely instrumental Ground to appear on this disc is one in D minor, ZD222 including the cautionary suffix ‘D’ to the Zimmerman catalogue number denoting its authenticity is doubtful. Yet it’s quite often recorded because the melody above the ground is Purcell’s, that of the air ‘Crown the altar’ in Celebrate this festival. Again, on this CD there are dummy runs, three this time, before the published version with the full melody begins at 0:22. Carter’s lute provides a calm bass over which the more scintillant, incisive tone of the harpsichord makes for a clean, rather exotic balance. This ground is busier than the earlier one, beginning and ending with four running quavers and there are thirteen statements of it. This gives it an insistency which you might find agreeably tense or disagreeably hectoring. How different is it when Egarr alone played it in 2007? Well, that version, which is prefaced by two dummy runs, I find in comparison rather mechanistic in its intensity: the lute indeed is a becalming influence.

‘Tell me, some pitying angel’, also called The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, is the best known of Purcell’s sacred songs and longest setting on this disc. It has all the drama, mood changes and demands on vocal virtuosity of a mad song like ‘From silent shades’, but with a sacred slant. Pierce and her accompanists bring us the urgency and panic of Mary when Jesus disappears among the Jerusalem crowds at Passover: an edgy melisma envisaging Herod’s cruelty, a tender one for the pattering of tiny feet. Then there’s an affectionate address to Jesus, “Why, fairest object of my love” (tr. 14, 1:31), seeking to understand why he should stray and as Mary’s mind races back frantic cries to Gabriel for help and dejection at no response. A brief section in C major, “Me Judah’s daughters once caress’d” (3:33), recalling the happiness at becoming a mother only reinforces the pervasive C minor gloom. In the final section, “How shall my soul its motions guide” (4:44), Pierce shows us determination to meet the challenge despite the long melisma on “lab’ring” soul. But the climax is the coda’s distinction between trust in Jesus as God and fear for him as child with a heart-rending, beautifully gauged long melisma on “oh!”. With Pierce, you feel that’s well sung, but with Sampson’s recording you feel you have entered into Mary’s sorrow. This is because she inhabits the character as if this is an opera. So “Why, fairest object of my love” is meltingly imploring, the calls to Gabriel contain anguish and fade into despair at the end of the second batch where Pierce’s might be those of a town crier. The C major section is Sampson’s fond memory from present sad times rather than a total flashback.

‘Music for a while’ was composed for the play Oedipus by John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee. The song serves to conjure up a ghost to reveal information which will cure Thebes of plague. It’s one of Purcell’s best-known songs and one of the greatest in English music, full of memorable features. To start, there’s a sustained beacon of sound on “music”, then melismas on “wond’ring” which use a descending phrase that pervades the piece. The snakes drop from Alecto’s head in quavers, punctuated by rests so you can feel them falling to earth. To close, the unified progression of the song is displayed when a quaver/crotchet-plus-rest pattern conveys the falling away of all cares. However, for me it has a glowing rather than blazing quality, lambent rather than incandescent. From Pierce, who as ever sings freshly and with great presence, we get the vividness of a blooming but forced flower. The song was written for a countertenor who can convey much better its ethereal quality. Alfred Deller made the first recording of it in 1943, when Michael Tippett said “the centuries rolled back”. His 1959 recording is still available (Regis RRC 1419) but avoid his transposed down 1979 recording on Harmonia Mundi. His tone in 1959 is luminous and his voice hangs in the air in contemplation. He shows that part of Pierce’s forced impression is because, timing at 3:06, she’s too fast in comparison with his 3:59.

‘The fatal hour comes on apace’ is stylistically a late song, like ‘Sweeter than roses’, and like it also has a slow first and faster second section. But here melismas in semiquavers measure the bleakness of the lover’s state of mind as the loved one is departing. Pierce is earnest, concentrated until at the end of the opening section the flurry of notes slows for her desolate vision of a breaking heart. The second section, “Since I for you so much endure” (tr. 16, 2:07) is an eloquent, poetic and musical plea that the parting be only temporary. Sampson’s interpretation of this song is softer, more lightly articulated, less projected than Pierce’s and thereby less protesting, more inward and moving, showing more empathy than bitterness, with the second section more ornately fashioned.

‘Thou wakeful shepherd’ is ‘a morning hymn’. Pierce gets across its paradoxes well. It’s humble yet resolute, fervent in its austere manner, so that we believe its sorrowing for sins and avowal of repentance that itself brings joy, a brief gloss in the major (tr. 17, 2:02) before it closes facing the inevitability of death which stalks the piece. I compared the 2009 recording by Elin Manahan Thomas with David Miller, lute (Coro COR 16081). Thomas showers ornaments on the vocal line yet appositely makes this part of the piece’s fervour while the close support of the lute is telling: you feel the presentation is a partnership. Thomas’s performance is more emotive than Pierce’s so the passage in the major radiates from what precedes it and earns its repeat made in Thomas’s recording. Pierce seems rather deliberate in her earnestness and less involved in the text.

‘Now that the sun hath veiled his light’, An evening hymn upon a ground’ which is stated 22 times ends this disc. This is the only song on a ground the score of which presents the ground once before the voice enters and I’m not sure it was necessary for it to be presented twice on this CD, the first time just by the lute, the second with harpsichord added, but I like the diligent yet restrained, intimate backcloth provided for the focus on Pierce’s happily prayerful projection and what is indeed the ecstatic momentum of the piece to which Carter refers in his note. Thereby the sixteen Alleluias that end it seem to spring spontaneously from the preceding text. Pace is also advantageous here. Pierce’s recording times at 3:50 to Sampson’s 4:33. The latter account is more serene, tranquil, but for me the more prominent, luscious lute and harpsichord backing for her is a somewhat busy distraction and the Alleluias begin to seem comparatively too much like a vocal exercise. Sampson sings beautifully, especially the way she shades off the final Alleluia as an echo, but Pierce’s more active presentation gets across better the zealous text, reinforced by the musical setting’s repetitions. As in her best performances on this disc she has an engaging directness and concentration.

MusicWeb International
01 May 2019