Listening to Britten – Purcell: On the brow of Richmond Hill


I Know a Bank from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Jane Mackay – her visual response to Britten’s music, used with many thanks to the artist. Jane Mackay’s Sounding Art website can be found here

On the brow of Richmond Hill, Z405 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 20 July 1943, Britten aged 29)

Dedication not known
Text Thomas D’Urfey
Language English
Duration 1’30”

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [James Bowman (countertenor), The King’s Consort / Robert King]

The realization [Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

On the brow of Richmond Hill is a setting of Thomas D’Urfey’s Ode to Cynthia, walking on Richmond Hill, and was published in 1692. The poem was one of D’Urfey’s most popular, and was frequently reprinted early in the 18th century.

In his booklet note for the original Purcell release on Hyperion, Robert King explains how Richmond Hill would have taken half a day on horseback to reach from the city, but that once there even the considerable view paled into insignificance when compared to that of Cynthia herself. He describes Purcell’s setting of this text as ‘ravishing’.

Thoughts

The grand and expansive melody gets quite a restrained backing, which comes through at the end on the words ‘whose features are divine’, where there is a potent flourish from piano on the final chord.

The whole setting feels more relaxed than the original – perhaps dazzled by Cynthia’s legendary beauty!

Recordings used

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson operate just a semitone below Britten’s specified pitch of B flat major, but that doesn’t seem to matter in this appropriately reverent performance.

Spotify

Unfortunately, although there are a couple of versions of the original available on Spotify, Britten’s realization cannot be found.

Also written in 1943: Martinů – Memorial to Lidice

Next up: There’s not a swain of the plain

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