Listening to Britten – Purcell: Sweeter than roses


‘Long may she keep this realm’ – 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

Sweeter than roses, Z585/1 – Purcell realization for high or medium voice and piano (pre 23 November 1945, Britten aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Richard Norton
Language English
Duration 3′

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion

Original version, sung by Paul Esswood (countertenor) with Johann Sonnleitner (harpsichord) and Charles Medlam (viola da gamba)

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

Background and Critical Reception

Sweeter than Roses is an excerpt from the incidental music Purcell wrote for Richard Norton’s Pausanias, the Betrayer of His Country.

In his notes for Hyperion’s edition of the complete Purcell realizations, David Trendell notes how ‘Britten’s personality comes to the fore when there is opportunity for word-painting. This is a perfect example, where Britten has a series of jagged, sforzando chords to depict the word ‘freeze’, rapid staccato chords for the word ‘shot’ and a martial-like piano ritornello to portray the ‘victorious love’ of the final section’.

Thoughts

This is a beauty. Britten’s very soft piano line, with its rippling chords, is the ideal foil to Purcell’s languorous and indulgent vocal line, which floats in mid range like an exotic butterfly in slow motion, if that’s not too flowery a description!

The piano line itself sounds extremely instinctive, as if Britten had composed it at the piano in concert, with a ‘just off the page’ freshness.

As the song progresses the bit of staccato David Trendell mentions sounds very strange indeed, and then the vocal line becomes much more flowery, in keeping with the subject matter, but Britten responds with a more expansive role for the piano.
For the start alone, this realization is well worth hearing, but needs a few listens to capture its many nuances.

Recordings used

James Bowman (countertenor), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Eloquence)
Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Felicity Lott could hardly be better at the start of this song, which is truly irresistible, and Graham Johnson handles the twists and turns of the piano part with ease. James Bowman and Britten himself start in G minor instead of C minor, which is quite a difference, and Bowman’s voice has a very impressive bloom. Britten’s freedom in the piano part gives an air of improvisation.

Spotify

Britten and James Bowman can be heard in Sweeter than roses by clicking here

Also written in 1945: Prokofiev – Ode to the End of the War, Op. 105

Next up: I spy Celia

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