Included on this excellent CD is Round O, Z.T684 from Purcell’s 1695 incidental music for Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer, a lovely miniature that is formed upon the recurring pattern of the round. It is immediately familiar because it is the.melodic source of Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This serves to remind the listener how Purcell’s music has managed to rise from the ashes of lost time, above that of his forgotten contemporaries, to influence the music of our era. This connection between Purcell and Britten has another significant aspect: England did not produce as universally a gifted composer as the great Baroque master for the more than two centuries between his untimely death at age 36 in 1695 and the advent of the talented modernist. English music relied on immigrant masters like Handel and J. C. Bach for its sustenance during that lengthy interregnum.
With the Restoration of the English monarchy, a tremendous rebirth of interest in musical forms – both sacred and secular – swept the nation. There was a genuine restoration of the old musical traditions in most areas of the country. The Puritanism prevalent in many parts of England before the Civil War had by now largely vanished. The regime under Cromwell had silenced most music, leading to the withering of centuries of hard-won knowledge and the inevitable atrophying of talent. Henry Purcell arrived during the post-Puritan renaissance and was the beneficiary of a tabula rasa upon which to bring to consummation all of the divergant tendencies of the English middle baroque that had existed before the Civil War. Tendencies evolved just before the wave of the late Italian baroque style that swept over England. Not since the golden age of the English Madrigalists had music been in such a creative ferment.
Purcell was a creature of the rarified air of court life. He relished its conventions and the mannered artificialities of Restoration society. Within those constraints Purcell took the superficial aspects of the late 17th century English world and fashioned it, like an alchemist, into art. These superficial traits in Purcell’s music have often been observed. They are a result of the purpose served by music in Restoration society. Music was meant to entertain and to do so sensuously. It is hardly a surprise that in a world where music was considered an ornament, a bright bauble with which to divert the slightly bored and slightly intelligent aristrocat, that ornamentation in music would assume singular importance. The suites found on this recording, each one usually comprised of four dances organized into a single sonorous set, have a jewel-like brilliance. They are full of melodic and harmonic twists and oddities, replete with splendid sunbursts of ornamentation that dazzle the listener. Other portions are sweetly lyrical, often poignant and heart-breaking in their intimations of mortality. One can hear the gentle birth of the Rococo in these beautifully assembled morsels of sonic beauty.
Richard Egarr on harpsichord has a masterful touch that serves to bring these pieces to life. He is sure-handed in the complex ornamentation that are their hallmark. Arpeggios are played with an emphasis on expressive dynamics that sounds almost effortless – quite difficult on harpsichord, which by its very nature as a plucked string instrument does not easily lend itself to dynamics. Egarr’s playing is lyrical and tender when necessary. It is percussive in the faster dances, making one eager to get up and jig or dance the sailor’s horn pipe as long as no one is watching. There is an inevitable sameness when taken as a whole. These are not the most profound of compositions. Breaking up a session into halves might be the best way to listen to this recording. Harmonia mundi’s engineers capture the harpsichord’s sound beautifully. The recording is rich and sonorous, never allowing the often delicate sound of the instrument to become brittle or coarse. There is a natural ambiance: not too close but nicely focused in the near distance with a hint of reverb. This is a lovely recording of these comparatively rare pieces.
— Mike Birman