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 Recording of the Week  Britten's homage to Purcell

It will be interesting to see how the various composer anniversaries this year will be picked up and used as inspiration by contemporary composers. Back in 1945, the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death had a profound effect not only on his own popularity, but also on the compositional careers of a number of British composers – most notably Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett.

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

I think what probably attracted them to Purcell most was his dramatic sense. His understanding and treatment of the language combined with his ability to capture mood and emotion through the music is quite remarkable. He did this through a variety of means such as unexpected resolutions, multiple suspensions and chromatic bass lines.

Post-1945 Britten in particular developed a profound knowledge of Purcell’s music and a detailed appreciation of the techniques and subtleties of his style. He displayed this in a number of works, the most popular of course being The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra which uses a Rondeau from Purcell’s Abdelazar as its theme. Britten realized a number of Purcell’s songs and also wrote his own song cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne in 1945 almost as homage to Purcell.

It is a new recording of Britten songs with one of my favorite tenors, Mark Padmore, that has been my inspiration this week. The disc includes the Holy Sonnets and some of the Purcell realizations mentioned above along with the slightly later Winter Words and a few folksong arrangements.

It is an outstanding disc in every respect, with Padmore displaying his remarkable range of vocal expressions to maximum effect. He can be dark and sensuous one minute, dramatic and gripping the next, and all the time matched by the outstanding piano playing of Roger Vignoles. If you already have and enjoy the famous Peter Pears recordings of these works then I’d say this is quite different but no less effective, and Harmonia Mundi’s sound is truly excellent.

I’ve put a couple of samples from the Holy Sonnets for you to enjoy below, which if you have time to listen to both illustrate perfectly the range of both emotion in Britten’s writing and vocal timbre in Padmore’s voice.

Britten - Before Life and After

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Roger Vignoles (piano)

Available Format: CD