Purcell Dido and Aeneas

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Purcell Dido and Aeneas

  • Dido and Aeneas

There have been many fine reissues of Purcell’s music in the last year or so but Sir John Barbirolli’s 1965 reading of Dido and Aeneas, for all the musicianly detail, is something of an enigma: it has neither the invigorating vitality of Sir Anthony Lewis’s account of 1961 nor Sir Charles Mackerras’s atmospheric characterization and dramatic tension, recorded six years later. Yet the singing is as good, and at times better, than the celebrated rival accounts of the period (only Deller’s disappointingly plodding version is best forgotten): Heather Harper is a splendid Belinda and “Pursue thy conquest love” is wonderfully anticipatory in its prescient Angst. In his original review Alec Robertson found her lacking in charm but I have never thought of Belinda as any more of a statutory maid than I have Susanna. I would agree, however, with his assertion that Patricia Johnson’s Sorceress is too amiable by half. Then there is Victoria de los Angeles’s Dido. I gave her rather short shrift in my Gramophone “Collection” in March last year, mainly because this version was not available at the time, though she conveys something compellingly introspective, as does Dame Janet Baker for Lewis, which, if not as regal as either Kirsten Flagstad in 1952 for Geraint Jones or Tayiana Troyanos for Mackerras is none the less well worth experiencing. Her Lament has a special sense of occasion and there is no doubting a great singer at work.
The main reason why this recording struggles to make a revisionist challenge is that the overall conception lies uneasily. Barbirolli obviously wanted to create a large dramatic canvas as a means of bringing the opera’s greatness into an appreciable ‘mainstream’ context (he was evidently deeply committed to the work). As we now know, this opera responds best to a lean and lonely interpretation where the paradox of such dramatic power and emotional intensity over a short time is exploited with chamber forces. Only Lewis’s and Mackerras’s readings from the non-period instrument age seem to accentuate the ironies of Purcell’s skilful juxtaposition of uplift and gloom. Even so, Barbirolli’s handling – for all the overburdening and melodrama – is full of acute sensitivity. I cannot honestly say that I will return frequently to this recording, I am grateful to have de los Angeles’s Dido, and most definitely the chorus and orchestra, who are excellent throughout.'

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