Saturday, July 8, 2017

Early Music Festival: Henry Purcell, England's greatest composer before the 19th century, viewed from a popular perspective

The clearest indication of what "The People's Purcell" — the program La Nef gave Friday in the Indianapolis Early Music Festival — was all about came with the encore.
Michael Slattery: The ingratiating tenor soloist with La Nef in its Purcell program.

Not that the Montreal ensemble, featuring the captivating tenor Michael Slattery, hadn't already signaled its approach to the 17th-century English composer in both its music-making and the program note. But "When I am laid in earth," known as Dido's Lament from the opera "Dido and Aeneas," is probably Purcell's greatest hit. Before singing it, Slattery invited the Indiana History Center audience to consider it in the same light as "Memory" from "Cats."

Given its familiarity, you could readily note the difference between the stately original lament of the North African queen, abandoned by her lover Aeneas on his way to found Rome, and the La Nef stylization that followed, extending the compact aria. This sort of thing is well done by the expertly coordinated group (seven instrumentalists plus Slattery), which ranges widely in style and repertoire as a matter of course.

In some sense, it may be best to borrow the term "cover" from pop music to describe how La Nef treated Purcell in this concert.  The word was used in the 1950s to describe the marketing stratagem by which black musicians' recordings were "covered" by whites to make the songs more salable. Roll over, Big Mama Thornton! It's Elvis' "Hound Dog" now.

Marketing may be less germane to identify what La Nef does, but its arrangements, fused to instrumental mastery, certainly help establish and maintain its brand. Not all of Purcell would be well-served by being put through such a blender, but the songs, whose abundance Grove's Dictionary describes as "almost embarrassing," communicate something essential about his expressive, well-knit melodic style. The sporadic dissonance in the instrumental accompaniment is also a notable feature of Purcell, and is put to effective dramatic use in the stage works. This was demonstrated, introducing and punctuating the teeth-chattering vocal line, by "What power art thou" (The Cold Song) from "King Arthur," in an arrangement with frostbitten string figures seemingly borrowed from Vivaldi's "Winter" in "The Four Seasons."

La Nef arrangements for this combination had to be fashioned from a variety of simpler accompaniments. Sometimes rhythmic and harmonic changes were made, as the program note states. You could hear that as the melody of Dido's Lament changed character and the prominence of its descending bass line receded into La-Nefian splendor. This version became indeed commensurate with the stuck-in-the-head amplitude of "Memory," though it could be argued that the simple dolor of the original song has its own perpetual ear-worm status.

Instrumental showcases gave Slattery some relief in the form of concise suites from the theater music, including a "King Arthur" Suite that featured cherishable expressivity in episodes featuring cellist Amanda Keesmaat and recorder player Gregoire Jeay. The high quality of accompaniment provided by archlutenist Sylvain Bergeron throughout particularly placed the concert, for all its inviting departures from "authenticity," firmly in the Purcellian orbit.

The loose feeling about vocal expression that Slattery brings to these arrangements was most notable in the "ah" and humming choruses of "She loves and she confesses too" that followed presentation of the smitten text. The kind of gender equality represented by both sexes' tendency to be deceitful in love was coyly represented in Slattery's performance of "When I have often heard." Sitting on a high stool and often contributing the drone of a shruti box to the accompaniment, the tenor was a mesmerizing performer, with immense dynamic and breath control.

In accepting the La Nef manner with Purcell, you had to take in a butter-smooth manner of vocal projection that sometimes wasn't far from crooning, as in "Music for a while" and the unscheduled insertion of a John Dowland piece to bring the concert up to intermission — "Now O now I needs must part." The vocal quality, however, in the latter piece was a far cry from the sincere if grainy manner of Sting in his Dowland interpretations. How a singer looks when expressing emotion is properly allowed to complement the singing, of course. But Slattery pushed the envelope somewhat, scrunching up his face and baring his teeth too often. He has so much to offer in pure vocalism, however, that a little mugging could be taken in stride.

The concluding work paid tribute to another vast part of Purcell's output: sacred music. It's a credit to La Nef and Slattery that its populist approach to the Restoration composer's music did not violate the well-crafted piety of "Now that the sun hath veiled his light," with its flowering of "Hallellujahs" (or "Alleluias") at the end. It's the kind of richness that proliferates in Purcell's music — like the variant spellings of his name, which total nine (according to Grove's).

And these musicians' efforts at putting their stamp on the music and bringing it forward while representing Purcell's energy and variety for the 21st century are worthy of hallelujahs all their own.