PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas – Nicola Wemyss (Dido)/ Matthew Baker (Aeneas)/ Francine van der Heijden (Belinda)/ Musica ad Rhenum Choir and Orchestra/ Jed Wentz, conductor – Brilliant Classics

by | Jul 20, 2007 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

PURCELL: Dido and Aeneas – Nicola Wemyss (Dido)/ Matthew Baker (Aeneas)/ Francine van der Heijden (Belinda)/ Musica ad Rhenum Choir and Orchestra/ Jed Wentz, conductor – Brilliant Classics Multichannel SACD 92538, 55:32 ***(*):

This recording was originally released in 2005 as 92464 on a two disc set that also included the Masque of Cupid and Bacchus, and Galliard’s Pan and Syrinx. Now Brilliant has put Dido alone out on this SACD. It always amuses me when record companies seem to have a crisis of conscience when putting out a recording that they know will be perceived as rather stingy on the overall timing, for in 95 per cent of the cases they omit the total timing from the package completely! Here it is the same, the 56 minutes missing from the notes or back cover. They needn’t have worried here, as most Didos are released without any other couplings, and the price of this hybrid disc makes it worth the money even if the timing had been even less.

Dido has always been plagued with performance edition issues. Here the conductor has opted to go with the 1689 libretto, which means that he is using only music that the composer actually composed, having to borrow from a few of his other works to fill in the gaps where the music is missing in the manuscript score.

This is a minimalist production, with only two violins, viola, viola da gamba, harpsichord, and baroque guitar providing the support. Personally I find it hard to believe that the original production, done for a girl’s school, would have involved so few players, as a performing space of any size at all would drown out these forces. Are we to believe that the concept of an orchestra was unknown in Purcell’s time? Some of the proponents of baroque practice today are rapidly turning the entire era into one of miniscule chamber ensembles only, something that simply doesn’t bear up under historical scrutiny. Not that we should revert to large orchestra settings like the ones used in the classic recordings of Barbirolli (with Victoria de los Angeles) or Lewis (with Janet Baker), two readings that still send chills down my spine. Or should we? I cannot say what history will ultimately conclude about this issue of orchestral size, but musically I find it untenable that we should always be faced with lowest common denominator performances.

Having said this, it is also true that Purcell’s music can withstand, and even thrive in, anything. The recording faces a number of fine competitors, not the least of which are the two mentioned above. On their own turf, Christopher Hogwood (Decca) and Andrew Parrott (Chandos) have both given fine readings not quite as paired down as these, and more recently Emmanuelle Haïm has given a star-studded, though maybe not as historically correct—considering her singers—reading on Virgin that I like very much. This recording is quite pleasing overall, but nothing really sticks out as outstanding. Nicola Wemyss’ Dido is quite nice, and her final aria moving and effective. Francine van der Heijden’s Belinda feels a little nagging, and her voice not sufficiently contrasted to Wemyss. Matthew Baker does a creditable job in the ungrateful role of Aeneas (the opera could have just been titled Dido), and the players and chorus are all fully professional and clean in presentation. The surround sound is excellent, though with such small forces I am not sure how effective it really is. If you want this in SACD this is a cheap way to go, and it will satisfy, but if you want to hear the role sung to perfection, you should get Baker or De los Angeles.

— Steven Ritter

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