Wellington Cathedral’s TGIF recital series presents:
HENRY PURCELL – Songs and Duets
Anna Sedcole (soprano) / Helene Page (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Stewart (harpsichord)
Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul
Friday, 23rd July 2021
There is a particular pleasure in hearing a duet sung by two voices that are well-matched in timbre, especially when the singers obviously share not only a vocal quality but a musical sensibility and a personal rapport. Such were the harmonies on offer at this presentation of Purcell songs, performed by old friends Anna Sedcole and Helene Page, and accompanied fluently and unobtrusively on harpsichord by Michael Stewart, the Cathedral’s Director of Music, who also happens to be married to Sedcole — completing the sense of a musical afternoon among friends. At its best, the concert felt almost spontaneous, as if the three felt a common impulse to burst into song. Such a carefree effect, of course, bespeaks careful and devoted preparation.
The recital opened with “Music for a while” from the incidental music to Oedipus, sung by Page in a warm but austere mezzo-soprano reminiscent of a Baroque recorder. While the vast vertical space of the Cathedral did its best to swallow her low notes, she made a compelling case for the “beguiling” properties of music, which was amply borne out by the next two numbers, “Let us wander” and “Lost is my quiet.” Here we got to appreciate fully how well-suited the two voices were to each other, each striking overtones off the other that showcased Purcell’s harmonies beautifully. Ornaments and fast-moving passages were clearly articulated for the audience to appreciate. Next came “If music be the food of love,” showcasing Sedcole’s agile, flute-like soprano. I especially appreciated her sensitive dynamics (again not easy given the voracity of the space) and bright, clean articulation, so necessary in this music (and the polar opposite of the viscous legato required for the Russian choral repertoire the singer would be performing the following night as a member of the Tudor Consort!).
Page then returned and the two sang a gorgeous love duet, “My dearest, my fairest,” making the most of long, languishing melismas, suspensions, resolutions, and a hocketing “no, no” at the end that recalled bird song (and made one wonder whether a tragic ending was secretly encoded in this otherwise idyllic pastoral-sounding romance. Having now looked up the play for which Purcell wrote this song, Pausanias, the betrayer of his country: a tragedy by Richard Norton, I find it indeed precedes a scene in which the eponymous hero’s lover, Pandora, attempts to seduce his lieutenant — so Purcell seems to have caught the mood here exceptionally well).
A slight technical malfunction in the harpsichord recalled us to Michael Stewart’s labours at the keyboard, and afforded an opportunity to marvel a second time at the family likeness between Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and the opening bars of the next duet, “Sound the trumpet” (from Come Ye Sons of Art, one of the odes Purcell wrote to commemorate the birthday of Queen Mary II in 1694). Appropriately jubilant, it was sung with fine rhythm, vigour, and precision, and went with a swing. The next piece was a total contrast in all but the technical excellence of the performance: the slow, melancholy and poignant “O Solitude,” sung by Helene Page in a tender legato which reminded one of liquid honey, the vocal decorations — mordents and small trills — offered to the listener precise and unhurried.
The final two songs, both duets, were drawn from King Arthur, an opera I’m now extremely curious to see performed in its “Restoration spectacular” entirety. The first of these, a duet of shepherdesses entitled “Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying” was the highlight of the program for me: witty and nimble. I would have placed it last on the program instead of “Two daughters of this aged stream” (a song for two sirens), whose more languid tempo and theme (and final refrain of “And circle round, and circle round”) suggested intrigue rather than peroration. Intrigue, however, was there none; the performers ended their recital promptly at the destined hour, leaving their audience satisfied but not surfeited with Baroque harmonies.