Listening to Britten – Purcell: Not all my torments can your pity move


Not all my torments by Jane Mackay – her visual response to Britten’s realization, used with many thanks to the artist. This picture is used for the cover of Hyperion’s complete recordings of the Purcell Realizations. Jane Mackay’s Sounding Art website can be found here

Not all my torments can your pity move, Z400 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 3 May 1943, Britten aged 29)

Dedication not known
Text Anon
Language English
Duration 2′

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [Susan Gritton (soprano), The King’s Consort / Robert King]

The realization [James Bowman (countertenor), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

It is important to note with settings like this that, as David Trendell points out in his notes to Hyperion’s complete recordings of the Purcell realizations, ‘Purcell provided the vocal part and a bass line, figured to indicate the harmony, leaving it to the continuo player to ‘realise’ the rest of the accompaniment – which is what Britten does’.

It is also worth revisiting an introduction to Britten’s realizations of Purcell which can be found on the blog here, with some guidance from the tenor Ben Johnson.

Thoughts

Britten’s realization of this is thoughtful but dark. Like the original he leaves the vocal plenty of room, which it particularly needs when sung by a countertenor. Much of the piano writing is towards the lower end of the instrument, creating a real distance between melody and harmony, and a haunting atmosphere where the pain and strife is fully conveyed.

I personally prefer a tenor voice in this work, and Pears’s sense of drama makes it a compelling listen. By contrast I find the countertenor quite a difficult voice to appreciate, especially in such an emotionally raw setting.

Few, however, could deny the strength of Britten’s response to the text and Purcell’s vivid vocal writing.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (BBC Legends)
James Bowman (countertenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Pears and Britten are captured by the BBC in concert at Aldeburgh on 22 June, 1959, a recording sadly not available other than by second-hand. The recording is close, capturing each nuance of Pears’s rich and florid delivery, full of tone. Britten on the other hand plays a hushed counterpoint at the piano, pointing the harmony here and there.

James Bowman sings this with superb control, dominating the song, with Graham Johnson content to supply the harmonic guidance when it is required. Presumably to accommodate the countertenor range the pair transpose up a fifth to G minor, whereas Britten and Pears are in C minor.

Spotify

There is only one disc of the complete Purcell realizations, unfortunately not available on Spotify.

Also written in 1943: Shostakovich – Symphony No.8 in C minor Op.65

Next up: I’ll sail upon the dog-star

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