The two-CD set, “Benjamin Britten: Purcell Realizations”
consists of 40 songs, which are as the title suggests:
realizations by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) of songs from
various works by Henry Purcell (1659-1695). These
“Realizations” basically amount to Britten providing piano
accompaniment “…for contemporary conditions,” because all
of the vocal lines are more or less as originally written by
Purcell. Henry Purcell also wrote the bass lines with figured
numbers indicating the harmonics; hence, the term
“figured bass.” These numbered indications leave a lot of
leeway for the continuo player (or the piano player, in
Britten’s case) to “realize” the accompaniment.
One thing that Purcell and Britten shared was a supreme
understanding of the human voice, and how to effectively
write music for it. The majority of Purcell’s music involves the
voice in some capacity, and although Britten wrote prolifically
in all genres, his claim to greatness primarily rests as a
composer of vocal music, and opera in particular.
Since Britten was an admirer of Purcell’s music, using one of
his tunes for Britten’s most popular work, “The Young Person’s
Guide to the Orchestra,” this would seem to be a match
made in heaven. As ideal as this cross-century “collaboration”
may be, I can’t help wishing that I could hear these songs in
their original 17th Century settings, either as an observer of
Purcell’s stage works, or from some other source. Nevertheless,
to his credit, Britten never forced his musical personality on
these pieces, which spanned the years between 1939 and 1971.
He kept his accompaniments idiomatically true to the spirit of
Purcell, while filtering them through a 20th Century sensibility.
No doubt, it didn’t hurt that Britten was an excellent pianist,
and these Purcell “Realizations” were largely the result of his
longtime collaboration with his partner and muse, tenor Peter Pears.
In this excellent recording, a variety of different voice types
were used, providing a fresh approach to the various songs.
Although the majority of them are for a single voice, there are
nine for two voices and the piece, “Saul and the Witch of
Endor,” uses three voices. The duration of these songs can
range from less than one minute, to the aforementioned
song, which has a running time of just less than 12 minutes.
I believe the voices were well-chosen, and all of the singers
perform the text with a keen sense of dramatic inflection and
sensitivity. From a vocally opulent standpoint, I found that
baritone Simon Keenlyside and soprano Felicity Lott gave
standout performances. To me, countertenor James Bowman
was a bit of an acquired taste. The real hero of this recording
was the pianist, Graham Johnson, who provided sensitive and
thoroughly idiomatic support to the singers. He is justly
acclaimed as one of the finest vocal accompanists around.
As usual, the recording engineers at Hyperion did a fine job,
and the accompanying booklet has the texts of all of the songs.
This two-hour, 24-minute set is well worth the time of anyone
wishing to become familiar with a lesser-known facet of
Benjamin Britten’s art: that of a very sensitive arranger
of another composer’s music. I give it top marks!