Andrew Parrott: Composers’ Intentions? Lost Traditions of Musical Performance

The Boydell Press, 2015. xiii + 407pp, £19.99.
ISBN 978 81 78327 032 3

This is essential reading. Few performing directors spend as much time and effort on early Music as Andrew. I’ve known him since the early 1970s. We first met at Dartington Summer School. Andrew struck me first as a singer, though I soon learnt that he was far more than that. A few years later, I was involved in a student and amateur run on the Monteverdi Vespers, and it was there that the down-a-fourth (D) first appeared, with the two low basses in “Et misericordia” sung by the lute-maker Michael Lowe and myself – and I’m not a competent singer. I had, however, sung earlier music which went down to bottom D and I found that I could hit that pitch and could take it as the landmark – this didn’t depend on any perfect pitch.

I suspect – and hope – that most readers will have come across Andrew’s powerful imagination in a way that verges on common sense. Nearly 100 pages were devoted to Monteverdi. The size of choirs is crucial in connection with Monteverdi and Bach. Roger Bowers claimed that Monteverdi had ten singers available, so why is it performed by The 18 (ie the pseudo-16) or more?

Bach’s music, too, seems generally to have been sung by soloists, though Handel in church music and oratorio usually had choruses. There are certainly reasons why people who love singing the music should be able to perform it, but that’s not how it should go professionally. Not all conductors are concerned whether singers should be soloists or chorus: reading chapter 2 will give some advice.

Andrew primarily establishes that falsetto is not relevant to high singing at least until the 16th century, though according to Simon Ravens, what we now call counter-tenor was barely known until well into the 20th. Opera singers have been moving up for several decades to enable falsettists to sing natural high male voices, which at least gives a sort of validity. “Performing Purcell” is a fascinating fifty pages. I was intrigued by his review of six Dido and Aeneas recordings in 1978. Of these, Geraint Jones, with Kirsten Flagstad as Dido, was supported by Schwarzkopf as Belinda and two other characters, but she was not in the 1951 Mermaid Theatre stage: I bought the recording in 1960 and it was my favourite version for some 20 years. The other five recordings are Anthony Lewis/Janet Baker, Alfred Deller/Mary Thomas, Raymond Leppard/Tatiana Troyanos, Steuart Bedford/Janet Baker and Barbirolli/Victoria de los Angeles. I also have a 1970 recording by Colin Davis with Josephine Veasey, though I have no recollection of why I have it! My favourite recording, however, is Andrew with Emma Kirkby from 1981 – a new world!

I’m not going to make critical comments. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember their value, and at a price like this, virtually anyone playing, enjoying or studying will find it invaluable.

Clifford Bartlett