This was a concert of which one had high hopes. The French soprano Sandrine Piau – a renowned Baroque exponent – would sing Purcell’s sacred songs accompanied by harpsichordist Christophe Rousset and his distinguished Talens Lyriques colleagues, Elizabeth Kenny on the lute and Laurence Dreyfus on the viola da gamba.
This branch of Purcell’s oeuvre may be seldom performed, but it’s fascinating. As his contemporary Henry Playford noted, Purcell had ‘a particular Genius to express the energy of English Words’; his lyric gift showed a unique sensitivity to the rhythm and meaning of a text. And the texts he chose were imbued with white-hot religious fervour, of an intensity which can shock our modern sensibilities.
For Bishop Jeremy Taylor of County Down, Job’s curse becomes the occasion for the most brutal imaginings: ‘Let unborn babes, as in the womb they lie,/ If it be mentioned, give a groan and die... Why did I not, when first my mother’s womb/ Discharged me thence, drop down into my tomb?’ For the poet George Herbert, the sacred torment is physical: ‘My throat, my soul is hoarse;/ My heart is withered like a ground/ Which thou dost curse; My thoughts turn round/ And make me giddy: Lord, I fall,/ Yet call.’
But from the moment Piau opened her mouth, it was clear that – virtuoso though she is - she was completely unsuited to this task. To say that diction was the problem, and that she’s one of those singers who sing notes not words, is only the beginning of it. She ‘did’ the emotions strenuously, but she didn’t inhabit the poetry. Even closely following the text, it was hard to work out what she was singing: she had absolutely none of the native English speaker’s feel for the rhythm and meaning of a phrase. If, say, the British soprano Carolyn Sampson had been in her place, this recital would have been a searing experience, but with Piau the heart was never touched. Occasionally she found the right register – she nicely caught the flowing grace of the evening hymn ‘Now that the sun hath veil’d his light’ – but the real pleasures of the evening came from the instrumentalists, notably Rousset’s performance of a suite, and Dreyfus’s delivery of Christopher Simpson’s extemporisation on a ‘ground’.