Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell
Having applied Baroque instruments to 20th-century Latin standards in ‘Los pájaros perdidos’ (Virgin, 5/12), for her latest experiment Christina Pluhar brings jazz to the expressive sophistication, ground basses and killer tunes of Purcell. It is no mere dabbling: the expected Baroque continuo is here but the listener will probably be struck more by Gianluigi Trovesi’s klezmer-tinged jazz clarinet, Wolfgang Muthspiel’s soulful electric and acoustic guitars and Francesco Turrisi’s cool piano licks. Nor is anyone afraid of tampering with the text: ‘Music for a while’ is just one of the familiar numbers to undergo occasional subtle reharmonisation.
If you are now thinking of reading no further, stay! Some of these tracks have really got something. ‘Strike the viol’ acquires an irresistible swing, ‘Twas within a furlong of Edinburgh town’ goes boxcar, and ‘Here the deities approve’ gains incisive rhythmic push. The quality of the musicianship helps, both of L’Arpeggiata and of their jazz guests, and together they succeed in making the mix of elements seem for the most part perfectly natural. Raquel Andueza is heartbreakingly vulnerable in Dido’s Lament and there is sublime control of line from Philippe Jaroussky, who finds expressive licence in a smoky Evening Hymn that he might not have allowed himself on another occasion. Vincenzo Capezzuto’s girlish falsetto is extraordinary, although his numbers (notably an ugly ‘One charming night’) tend to be the ones where song and arrangement fit least comfortably.
In short, most of these songs retain their essential character, and far from having his genius dimmed, Purcell still shines as a writer of songs timelessly receptive to reinterpretation and capable of reaching the heart by the power of melody alone. They are the qualities of a good pop song of course, and in them Purcell was in the Lennon/McCartney league.