Listening to Britten – Purcell: How blest are shepherds


March – 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

How blest are shepherds, Z628/15b, from King Arthur – Purcell realization for high voice and piano (pre March 1958, Britten aged 44)

Dedication not known
Text John Dryden
Language English
Duration 3’00”

Audio clips (with thanks to Hyperion)

The original [The Parley of Instruments / Peter Holman]

The realization [John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)]

Background and Critical Reception

By now Britten had a substantial body of Purcell realizations from which to choose (36 published examples) so was understandably paying less attention to this area of his compositional output.

Yet there were still occasional published realizations of Purcell, and this excerpt from King Arthur, the first he had completed in three years, was once again for high voice and piano.

Thoughts

This realization is a more thorough reworking of the original, removing any chorus involvement and substantially trimming the instrumental introduction. Britten therefore begins with a brief flourish on the piano before his singer begins.

The piano part is quite detached at times, imitating the instrumental accompaniment as it alternates between this and some more luxuriant, spread chords. The hymn-like phrases and structure bring the mood of the song close to Britten’s settings of the Divine Hymns, with the key choice – G major – also significant in this respect.

It is, then, quite a relaxed song – and one of the more carefree settings of Purcell in Britten’s output.

Recordings used

John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano) (Hyperion)

Ainsley has a refreshing poise to his delivery, while Johnson enjoys the piano’s commentary, especially the more demonstrative harmonies from the spread chords.

Spotify

Britten’s realization is not on Spotify, but the original can be heard here, performed by tenor Iain Paton and the Les Arts Florissants under William Christie – part of a wonderful account of Purcell’s King Arthur.

Also written in 1958: Martinů – Piano Concerto no.5

Next up: Noye’s Fludde, Op.59

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