Sunday, December 18, 2005

CD Review - Janet Baker sings Purcell

Long-term intrepid readers of this blog have probably heard previous mention of The Princeton Record Exchange. The Record Exchange is a fabulous store where many classical CDs can be picked up dirt cheap, and has gotten a great deal of my business in the past year and a half. So much, in fact, that I am hopelessly behind in listening to all the music I've acquired there. In the interests of addressing this situation, I am going to post periodic short reviews of CDs after acquiring them. So, without further ado, on to the first review.

Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, with Janet Baker, Patricia Clark, Monica Sinclair, and Raimund Herinex. With the St. Anthony Singers under John McCarthy and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Lewis. Harpsichord continuo: Thurston Dart.

I bought this recording because it had Janet Baker, a well-known English mezzo-soprano. I was not disappointed - her performance of Dido was splendid. She has a rich tone, and her singing is extraordinarily expressive. Patricia Clark in the role of Belinda was also very enjoyable - she has a light, clear, nimble voice well suited to Purcell. On the other hand, Raimund Herinex as Aeneas was a little dull and woolly. The chorus, although occasionally sounding a little quavery, was in general quite strong and energetic, and the orchestra was excellent. My main criticism was with the witches' scene. Monica Sinclair as the Sorceress, all the witches solos, and the chorus as well tried to adopt a nasal, sneering, sinister tone. While this was initially dramatic and amusing, this tone interfered with the tuning and the musicality, and I wish a more straight-forward reading had been chosen. Apart from that, this was a fine recording, with Janet Baker standing out from the ensemble for her extraordinary emotional singing.

About the piece: Henry Purcell (1659-1695) wrote Dido and Aeneas, his only true opera, in 1689 for a girls' boarding-school. Accordingly the music is simple and the opera only an hour long. The story focuses on that part of the Aeneid set in Carthage, where Aeneas, a Trojan Prince fleeing the fall of Troy, and Dido, Queen of Carthage, have a brief affair before parting acrimoniously. The most famous part of the opera is Dido's final aria, "Thy hand, Belinda" and the subsequent final chorus "With drooping wings," which must rank as some of the most beautiful music Purcell ever wrote.

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