Listening to Britten – Purcell: Job’s curse


Galliard – 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

Job’s curse, Z191, also known as Let the night perish – Purcell realization for high voice and piano (pre 4 April 1948, Britten aged 34)

Dedication not known
Text Jeremy Taylor – a paraphrase of the Old Testament text
Language English
Duration 5’30”

Audio clips with thanks to Hyperion
Original, with Susan Gritton (soprano), Michael George (bass), The King’s Consort / Robert King

Realization, with Simon Keenlyside (baritone) and Graham Johnson (piano)

Background and Critical Reception

This is a Purcell setting of one of the very darkest moments in the Old Testament book of Job, where the main protagonist has reached the very bottom and is wishing he would die. Purcell sets a paraphrase of the original text, and Robert King notes the detailed and extensive word painting that he works around the text, responding to its themes of oppression and abject despair.

The themes also made it an ideal vehicle for Britten, who had already realized some of Purcell’s darker sacred pieces, in particular Saul and the witch at Endor. Although this particular realization is marked for ‘high voice and piano’ (Pears again, presumably) it can also be interpreted by a baritone.

Thoughts

This is sparse music indeed, and only brief glimpses of light are allowed, though Britten ensures the ‘sounds of joy’ briefly spoken of in the text are brought through.

Otherwise the mood is that of unremitting darkness, the piano retreating to a respectful distance at times, as if leaving Job on his own to come to terms with his feelings. Elsewhere it supplies basic harmonic pointing, with a few short melodies but nothing too florid, the music often travelling in stepwise movements.

While the song ends in utter frustration and resignation, there is a tiny bit of hope in the piano’s resolution to the major key, suggesting redemption might after all be at hand.

Recordings used

Mark Padmore (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Simon Keenlyside and Graham Johnson transpose down a tone for their powerfully affecting version, the lower register bringing us closer to the underworld. When Keenlyside sings ‘lie hush’d in silence’ the effect is magical and distant, almost otherworldly.

Mark Padmore is a little less downtrodden, his clearer tone spotting a chink in the clouds.

Spotify

Mark Padmore and Roger Vignoles can be heard in Britten’s realization here. The original, sung by Rosemary Joshua and accompanied by Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset, can be heard here.

Also written in 1948: Poulenc – Cello Sonata

Next up: Saint Nicolas, Op.42

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