PEPUSCH Venus and Adonis
Music in England between Purcell’s death and Handel’s arrival 15 years later remains a black hole except to a handful of specialists. By 1704 the Berliner Johann Christoph Pepusch settled permanently in London, where he was responsible for the composition or compilation of various theatre entertainments; later on he was music director for the first Duke of Chandos (for whom Handel composed several early English masterpieces at around the same time), and he provided music for Gay’s political satire The Beggar’s Opera (1728). Pepusch’s more ambitious works have been somewhat ignored by scholars and performers alike – so hats off to The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen for this enjoyable account of Venus and Adonis, a masque first performed as an afterpiece at Drury Lane in 1715. The scholar-performer and project director Robert Rawson calls it ‘a full-blooded opera seria in miniature’, and it turns out that the score has several fascinating parallels with Handel’s Acis and Galatea (Cannons, 1718), in which Pepusch might have played violin: a few of its comparable elements are a pair of oboes cascading limpidly over shapely strings and crisp continuo in the fine overture, and sopranino recorder chirrups in Venus’s ‘Chirping warblers’.
Adonis’s jolly hunting song ‘How pleasant is ranging the fields’ is sung blithely by Philippa Hyde, whose florid passages sparkle articulately in ‘Cease your vain teazing’ (an assertive minor-key complaint that could almost pass for Handel in its contrapuntal ritornellos). Venus’s entrance in a chariot is performed with radiant sweetness by Ciara Hendrick (‘Ah! sweet Adonis’), and the goddess’s complaint that Adonis appears uninterested in her charms is an impeccable juxtaposition of imperious authority and pathos (‘Cupid! Cupid! bend thy bow’). The jealous Mars is sung nimbly by Richard Edgar-Wilson at the very bottom of his range; a quarrelsome duet for Venus and Mars is dramatically vivid. The climax is slow creeping music with recorders for Adonis’s death scene (‘O! welcome! gentle death!’) and Venus’s anguished reaction in a turbulent accompanied recitative and aria (‘Arise! black storms and tempests’). If a contest is sought, then Handel (not to mention John Blow) clearly wins – but this excellent recording reveals that Pepusch is a significantly better composer than is normally assumed.