Finally... songs by the greatest English composer, sung by the greatest "English" countertenor. With this CD of secular and operatic arias by Henry Purcell, Andreas Scholl has returned to his "erste Liebe". The selection includes many of the best-known and best-loved songs, including "Music for a while" and "If music be the food of love", both of which AS imbues with all the poise, clarity and understanding for which he is justly famous, combined with unexpected flashes of cheerfulness. Apparently, Mr Scholl considers that "Music for a while" is one of the top 10 songs ever written and on this evidence who would argue?
The infrequently-recorded Cold Genius song, "What power thou art" from King Arthur, is a sheer triumph of strength and expression and is a particularly effective transposition to the countertenor range from the more usual bass/baritone - if you are not shivering and breathless by the end of it, you clearly haven't been listening properly. In contrast, the ingeniously simple "Fairest isle", which Mr Scholl sang to such acclaim at the Last Night of the Proms in 2005, is sung with a beguiling lightness of touch, and benefits from a sensitive harpsichord/lute/cello trio during the vocal sections and lavishly smooth and charming strings during orchestral parts; together they produce an absolutely scintillating rendition, the radiance of which just leaves you stunned with wonder. The one aria over which some controversy might arise is Dido's Lament, "When I am laid in earth", it being sung usually by a mezzo-soprano, but concern is needless; here it is surprisingly and movingly affecting and, after all, the sentiment, if not the context, is universally applicable. I could go on with "O Solitude", but you will get the picture by now.
Accademia Bizantina play several orchestral pieces with verve and spirit and, indeed, these have an important role in the structure of the CD since some of the songs have such an intensity to them that they could not be followed instantly by another; so the orchestral sections also serve to allow the listener to emerge gradually from the stillness engendered by a particularly powerful or sensitive aria. However, this CD is really all about the songs, where Stefano Montanari has the sense to appreciate that less is more; his gentle, supportive orchestration (and particularly the elegant organ/harpsichord accompaniment of Markus Märkl) gives Andreas Scholl the space and freedom to do what he does best - to use his captivating voice, his technical excellence, his lovely way with words and his experience to breathe life and warmth into some of the best-written songs in the english language. As he did with John Dowland, Andreas Scholl, at last, makes Purcell his own.
The recording includes two duets with Christophe Dumaux, whose voice I like very much also. The slow "O dive custos Auriacae domus" worked beautifully and would be in danger of being the highlight of the CD if not for, well, all the other highlights. "Sound the Trumpet", meanwhile, is sung with a delightfully engaging liveliness, but I am not entirely convinced that Scholl & Dumaux is the ideal pairing for this countertenor classic which, in my opinion, requires voices of a broadly similar style to make the very most of its counterpoint - let us hope for Scholl & Davies in the near future but until then I think we must let Bowman & Chance still have this one.
Right, let's turn to the elephant in the room. Does this version of the elegiac "An Evening Hymn" eclipse Michael Chance's supremely delicate, intelligent and reflective 1993 reading - the benchmark for so long? Of course not, but it stands firmly alongside as an exquisite, intensely beautiful new edition which will, without doubt, also stand the test of time.
Henry Purcell has been well served; it was definitely worth the wait.