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Classical 101

Purcell's Groove: The Anatomy of an Unlikely Musical Obsession

Above: Jennifer Hambrick's current musical obsession: the Prelude to Act 5 of Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen, performed by Le Concert des Nations and conducted Jordi Savall. Once in a while I hear a recording of such exquisite taste that I become temporarily obsessed with it, listening over and over to capture every possible nuance of phrasing, balance, articulation, the acoustics of the hall, microphone placement and other aspects of the engineering and so on. I'd like to take you on a little walk, here, through my current musical obsession. Recently I aired on Classical 101 some of Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nation's recording of Henry Purcell's music for The Fairy Queen. I fell in love with this particular performance of - of all things - the Act 5 Prelude. This movement is a most unlikely candidate for an object of obsession: it's very brief - less than a minute and a half long in this performance - it has no real tune to speak of, and it's based on three statements of the same music and so can't even really claim variety as an asset. And, to put it in a bit of perspective, this lilliputian movement would never appear on a list of Henry Purcell's greatest hits. Purcell's got plenty of other works to do that kind of heavy lifting. But slender and unassuming though it may be, this movement nonetheless, quite frankly, rocks. Purcell gives us some great raw material. Take a listen to the audio file at the top of the page and note the funky, syncopated upper lines (violins), the bass line that bounces along, the cool harmonic stuff, the phrases of unequal length that change things up and keep us guessing. Savall's interpretation brings tremendous nuance and contour to Purcell's handiwork. First, the dynamic pacing over the movement is impeccable. Savall keeps the dynamics low, with extremely subtle nuance, in the first of the three statements of the material. Savall builds dynamic presence with the second statement, beginning 28 seconds into the audio, by adding the harpsichord (and, it seems, also a few more bowed strings) and allowing greater presence to the second violin line, and continues building presence of sound in the third statement. Digging more deeply into the details, back at the beginning of the movement, deep in the inner voices, is some masterful figuration in the theorbo (actually, it sounds to me like a lute, but no lute appears in the recording's list of musicians) that is also brilliantly engineered into the final mix. Listen especially 14 and 18-22 seconds into the audio for the brief but lovely countermelodies in the plucked string instrument beneath everything that's going on in the violins, violas and cellos. It is improvisation of utmost taste. All that's great, but it would add up to nothing without the one absolutely essential ingredient of a good musical performance: the groove. Savall's choice of tempo (speed) is unassailable, and here is really where the rubber hits the road. Too slow a tempo (as in some earlier recordings of The Fairy Queen) and the music bogs down, too brisk a pace and the music has no sense of ease or, ironically, freedom. Savall found just the right groove to give the movement life and let it breathe. Prince, that immortal tunesmith, once said, "You can always tell when the groove is working or not." Yeah, Purcell - and Savall - knew that.