Monday Music: The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation (Purcell)

I’m planning (hoping is more accurate, at this stage) to do the Trinity ATCL exam this year, so I’m currently collecting repertoire suitable for a recital.  This piece of music is one I ran across a few years ago, and the title immediately piqued my interest.  It isn’t often that you see the word ‘expostulation’ in a song title, after all.

Then I heard it, and fell completely in love.

My obsession with Purcell is well-known by now, but the Expostulation really is spectacular even for him.  Though I must also admit to a slight bias on this one, because it is also one of those pieces of music that feels as though it was written for my voice – it falls right in the best and most comfortable part of my range, and it suits both my vocal style and voice type, as well as being a style of music I absolutely love.  Singing this is like a holiday – it just makes me happy, and my voice and I emerge at the other end feeling refreshed and full of enthusiasm.

(And it’s right there on the exam repertoire list.  An easy choice if ever there was one…)

As for the song itself, the lyrics are about Mary realising, on her way back from Jerusalem, that Jesus has gone missing.  And Purcell, being Purcell, has an absolute party using the lyrics to paint the words.  Quickly is sung quickly.  When Mary fears that Jesus is wandering through the wilderness, the vocal line wanders through meandering coloratura, and when she cries out to the Angel Gabriel for help, the music cries out, too.  And at ‘O fatal change’ the key changes into one with 5 flats, which was certainly fatal for my teacher, trying to accompany me at my most recent lesson (and the only reason it wasn’t fatal to me was that I already knew where the music was going.  Also, five flats are easier to sing than they are to play on the piano).

Also, with my growing knowledge of Anglican church music, I can’t help noticing that Purcell uses little motifs that tend to show up in bits of the Anglican Mass.  One or two of Mary’s lines closely resemble one of the more standard melodies used in the Gradual or Introit sentences.  I don’t think this was accidental (but he uses those, too).

It’s a slightly weird piece to sing, too, because it is mostly recitative – which is to say, it mostly has no real tempo to speak of, except when it briefly bursts into aria twice, before reverting to recitative.  This means that the singer has to figure out the momentum and shape of the piece largely on her own.  It’s quite interesting to listen to different recordings of this, and see how it has been approached.  Modern performances tend to be very free in tempo, which contrasts with older recordings, such as that of Isobel Baillie, who sings all the recitative sections with fairly strict tempo.  I find this approach lovely, but a little lifeless.

At the opposite extreme, we have Evelyn Tubb, whose version of this piece is extremely dramatic and fluid in style – quite operatic.  I can’t decide whether I love her version or dislike it – on the one hand, her expressiveness is really wonderful and gives life to the music; on the other, her vocal style doesn’t have the clarity I associate with Baroque music (it feels more Romantic to me), and I find this a bit disconcerting.  On the third hand, I fully intend to steal her ornaments, because they are lovely…

In the end, the version I used above was the one by Christine Brandes.  She isn’t as dramatic as Tubb, but her voice and style to me embody the effortless clarity and fluidity that Purcell’s music demands.  She makes the song sound as natural as breathing, which is as it should be.

I could listen to her all summer.

(there’s something cooling about really good baroque music, don’t you think?  Romantic music is nice and warm for winter, and big orchestral works are positively toasty, and if you try Dowland at any time other than spring you will probably slit your wrists – and he does suit the spring in any case – but this sort of music is a cool stream bringing a breeze with it.  Just what you need in the weather we’ve been having.)

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