Ich bin Berliner, says Purcell

Ich bin Berliner, says Purcell

There is a nutty and delightful new Purcell CD out this year: German soprano Dorothee Mields got together again with the early music ensemble Lautten Compagney Berlin under the leitung by Wolfgang Katschner to produce a collection of Purcell-authored and folk traditionals of the era loosely related to madness and bedlam. Mields’ precise, pretty, bell-like voice is perfectly partnered with the witty and inspired playing by the ensemble which crosses into eccentricity with some wonderful results.

There are all manner of curios here. There are the songs of funny madness and those of ‘melancholy’; there are short, less then a minute cris de coeur as well as much longer, cantata-like developed dramatic scene-songs; there are a few frequently recorded pieces like Dido’s Lament and O Solitude but also the relatively obscure bits from the musical theatre of the time (from plays with titles like The History of Dioclesian, Distressed Innocence or Sophobisba) and incidental music composed for Shakespeare’s plays.

The texts are all particular and worthy of close reading, and this includes the sillier variants with alliterations and onomatopoeic play. The music and what the Lautten Compagney does with it, all the brilliant accents and moods, all the unexpected twists, the layer upon layer of joy and hilarity – are the star of the disc. The pieces without the voice are nothing short of mini spectacles. I am now on the search for everything that the Compagney and Wolfgang Katschner ever recorded.

And what to say of Dorothee Mields? Unerring artistic instincts, singing intelligence, dramatic flair that brings alive an entire unruly crowd of characters strike again. (I first witnessed some of that at a Master Class one fine winter.) She moves from Bess of Bedlam to the Madonna to a dark ditty about The Cruel Mother to Mad Maudlin to the quite mad Ophelia to the dying Dido with ease and conviction. The baroque melismas, when summoned, are flawless. The only whinge I have is that the consonants get softened to non-existence every now and again – maybe German speakers fear a hint of Germanness in too blunt consonants? – and some of the clarity of the diction is lost. But in essence — it doesn’t matter. It’s a thing one will forget before the embarrassment of all the other riches.

Well programmed and beautifully executed.

15 thoughts on “Ich bin Berliner, says Purcell

  1. I had no idea that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and countless others, had their own Cruel Mother version! Now that I did some research, the lyrics are wee different but have the same meaning, so indeed this old folk song survives in pop culture like you wouldn’t believe!

    Oh the things I learn every day here!

    1. Yeah, those Child ballads, they get around (this one’s Child 20, if memory serves), though I wasn’t aware Nick Cave had done this one, will have to go hunting.Now I think of it, this stuff is kind of tailor made for him. You find the “seven years as…” trope in a lot of similar songs, too (similar = songs about neonaticide, of which there are many). Folk Process in action.

      1. Actually, “many” is probably an overstatement. Read that as “of which there are several”. Also, that greenwood? It’s always trouble.

        1. I’m thinking, I don’t think the South Slav folk has any songs of neonaticide. Or maybe I don’t know the Balkan folk traditions that well… always possible, even though I grew up there. Many evil old women Babajezas, but post-partum… hmmm… I must look into this.

  2. This sounds fascinating! Love how evocative the play titles you’ve chosen are. The vivid emotional variety summoned by the ensemble definitely sounds a Thing Not To Be Missed. I didn’t know that Purcell had set Mad Maudlin, actually (or many of these.) Now also busily thinking back over folktales possibly-secretly-but-not-so-secretly about neonaticide.

    1. Ha! I should clarify that Bedlam Boys, the goofy traditional song that opens this collection, is the one sung by the Mad Maudlin — or a similar mad woman who knew MM. The POV shifts quite a lot in the song, need I add.

      1. Aha! That must be the one song I knew about Mad Maudlin, then, where the narrator explains that she goes on dirty toes (to save her shoes from gravel) and MM herself still sings bonny boys, bonny mad boys, bedlam boys are bonny. :)

    2. @Lucy, I’d be interested to know if any folktales come to mind (some of Goethe’s source material for Faust maybe?) and how the issue is handled. With the songs, the event of the infanticide tends to be pretty straightforwardly presented. It’s the sex that created the infant that’s the secret, and thus shrouded in metaphor.

      @DtO, it would surprise me if there weren’t, but whether they’ve been preserved or not is another question. Collectors can also be arbiters.

      1. I pray to God(dess) that Julia Kristeva stumbles upon this post, gets intrigued and starts writing the book “The all-powerful mother: gender horror and neonaticide in myth and folklore: a comparative look”.

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