Listening to Britten – Purcell: Fairest isle


Time and Concord (Third Dance) – Gloriana 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

Fairest isle, Z628/38 (from King Arthur) – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 21 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text John Dryden
Language English
Duration 2’20”

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, with Catherine Bott (soprano) and the Parley of Instruments / Peter Holman

Realization, with Felicity Lott (soprano) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

Sung by Venus in the composer’s stage work King Arthur, Fairest isle is, in Peter Holman’s words, ‘Purcell’s most memorable minuet song. It comes from a masque conjured by Merlin at the end of the play to demonstrate to the victorious King Arthur how Britons and Saxons will eventually become a prosperous, unified nation’.

It is also said to have inspired Charles Wesley to write the hymn Love divine, all loves excelling.

David Trendell, in his booklet note for the Hyperion issue of Britten’s complete Purcell realizations, enjoys the ‘beautiful, long-breathed melodic line’, with ‘a realization that is simplicity personified, Britten realizing the need for discretion in the face of such exquisite vocal writing’.

Thoughts

There is a dignified restraint to Britten’s realization here, with very little getting in the way of Purcell’s beautifully crafted melody. Fairest Isle therefore becomes a passionate utterance, and although the specification is for high or medium voice and piano, it seems to work best with a soprano. That means the brightness of the melody comes through fully. Britten dispenses with the relatively lengthy introduction, so that the song begins almost immediately.

Some of the best piano accompaniments are those that don’t impose themselves on a singer – and this is one such example, subtly complementing what Britten clearly sees to be one of Purcell’s more radiant melodies.

Recordings used

Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (EMI)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Two recordings from the same team here – and very little to choose between them, though the Hyperion sound is slightly superior. Lott sings with great control.

Spotify

Unfortunately neither of Lott and Johnson’s recordings are on Spotify, though the audio examples given above do at least give an idea of Britten’s realization. The Purcell example is mostly instrumental, so a full version, performed by Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, can be heard by clicking here. The rather special soprano soloist is Véronique Gens.

Also written in 1945: Bing Crosby – I Can’t Begin To Tell You

Next up: If music be the food of love, Z379c

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