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The People's Purcell

Early Music America
8 mars 2018

In case its title doesn’t make this disc’s intentions clear, skip ahead to the last track. Tenor Michael Slattery’s poignant yet inward interpretation of “When I Am Laid” is more song at a wake than aria in an opera. Tragedy then segues into a contentful major key, and the Canadian chamber ensemble La Nef echoes this sudden optimism with hopeful, near-improvisatory lines over and around the vocalist. The performance is flawless, the reading confidently different from any other, respectfully inviting rather than willfully avant-garde. The intent of Purcell’s music remains apparent. This is Purcell for as many people out there who want to hear it.

In the liner notes, Slattery highlights Purcell’s synthesis of influences from folk idioms, position as a public composer, ability to get “straight to the point,” and his music’s potential for exploration. Slattery and La Nef infuse that concern for a casual, direct, and, above all, personal interpretation throughout the program, with Slattery’s vocals driving the approach. His secure projection, bright tone, and pinpoint diction are straight from the dramatic stage, yet the engaging reediness in his upper register (in “An Evening Hymn,” for example) and occasional deliberately breathy articulation (“Fairest Isle”) lend themselves to informal music-making with friends. More straightforwardly operatic excursions with a heftier tone and more decorous lines (“Let Each Gallant Heart”) are equally assured. These works demonstrate the influence of Italian opera as well as the English stage, showing what a musical sponge Purcell was in his day.

Cool intimacy remains the norm, however. “When I Have Often Heard” is a tender expression of bravery in the face of romantic cynicism and “Come All Ye Songsters” a heartfelt but laid-back ode to the power of music, while Slattery’s haunting repetition of “remember me” in the Lament from Dido and Aeneas makes the juxtaposition of moods that much more surprising. Slattery would fit in on a folk or even acoustic pop release, but his experimentation is always grounded in an awareness of Purcell’s musical/textual contours.

Rarely just accompanying, La Nef materializes with transparency, sensitivity, and an organic feel. Harmonies are warm, textured, and well-balanced. In “She Loves And She Confesses Too,” the ensemble’s pastoral lilt is right at home with Slattery’s countrified delivery and Abraham Cowley’s sly poetry. “Let Each Gallant Heart” features brilliant flute-led textures. Instrumental suites and incidental music further illustrate the seven-member group’s flexibility: They make the virtuosity in the “Furstenburg/Abdelazar Jig” sound easy but still exciting, indulge in rhythmic tintinnabulation in a lovely cello song in the King Arthur Suite, and toss off a catchy bass line in the second suite from The Fairy King. The integration of non-traditional instruments (Swedish nyckelharpa and Indian shruti box) is impressive on musical and not merely novel grounds.

The engineering captures it all in close sound, albeit with more emphasis on the performers’ breath than the acoustics at Église St-Augustin in Mirabel, Canada. This release is a unique and thoughtful recording of Purcell works.

Andrew J. Sammut - Early Music America 

The WholeNote
28 février 2018

As with his 2012 recording, Dowland in Dublin, tenor Michael Slattery has collaborated again with La Nef to present the music of a beloved composer, reworked and transformed in fresh and novel ways that prove most pleasing (and accessible) to a modern listener. Though Henry Purcell enjoyed an elevated position as composer at the court of Charles II, his theatrical music, based on popular song and dance forms of the time, was clearly loved by the more common folk. As well, there has been a long tradition of re-arranging Purcell’s sublime melodies for public use, beginning with Playford’s collection The Dancing Master in 1651.

Each piece selected for this recording has been individually stamped by either Slattery or a member of La Nef, without compromising the original intent of the music. Baroque cellist Amanda Keesmaat and cittern player Seán Dagher infuse their arrangements of instrumental suites from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur with playful interplays and folksy articulations. Flutist Grégoire Jeay and tenor Slattery take turns providing arrangements of the songs, with stunning results. The recording ends with Slattery’s reworking of Dido’s Lament in which a vacillation between the minor and major key provides a surprisingly dramatic and rather surreal effect, poignantly enhanced by the tenor’s artful and subtle delivery.

Dianne Wells - The WholeNote

ICI Musique
19 janvier 2018

L’ensemble La Nef et le ténor Michael Slattery font habilement ressortir les racines populaires de la musique d’Henry Purcell (1659-1695) sur leur plus récent album, The People’s Purcell.

Vous souvenez-vous de Klaus Nomi? Ce chanteur pop capable de chanter super aigu et qui interprétait un air de Purcell (The Cold Song) sur un arrangement de synthétiseur en 1981? Nomi en avait fait un succès de palmarès, démontrant la veine mélodique efficace de Purcell.

Une veine mélodique appuyée sur l’affinité sincère et compréhensible du compositeur anglais avec les musiques populaires de son temps, et pas seulement celles valorisées par le clergé ou la noblesse.

Dans un sens, Purcell a un petit quelque chose de Shakespeare dans sa façon d’être à la fois raffiné, sophistiqué et complexe d’un côté, facilement accessible et abordable par tous de l’autre. C’est l’émotion qui exsude de chaque note et de chaque phrase qui sert de ciment entre l’auditeur, même novice, et le compositeur ainsi que son art.

La Nef, ensemble montréalais dirigé par Sylvain Bergeron, nous rapproche tous de l’un des plus grands compositeurs de l’Occident en révélant, puis en chouchoutant ses racines populaires et folkloriques.

Le ténor Michael Slattery est un ténor au timbre un peu mince, mais, conséquemment, cela en fait le parfait véhicule de l’esprit humble, voire plébéien, qu’on a souhaité donner à cette gravure sonore.

L’une des recettes du succès de l’entreprise se trouve dans les arrangements, étoffés et intelligemment réalisés par Grégoire Jeay, Michael Slattery, Sean Dagher et Amanda Keesmaat.

Frédéric Cardin - ICI Musique

CBC Music First Play
11 janvier 2018

"Music is music is music," says tenor Michael Slattery. "Great music is timeless."

Following up on the success of 2012's Dowland in Dublin, Slattery has reunited with the musicians of La Nef for The People's Purcell, a collection of airs and suites by Purcell, reimagined in a traditional folksong idiom. The album is streaming in the player to your left until its Jan. 19 release on ATMA Classique.

Included are some of Purcell's best-known airs — "Fairest Isle," "She Loves and she Confesses, Too," and "Ah, how Pleasant 'tis to Love" — and instrumental selections from The Fairy Queen and King Arthur. "I have very strong instincts about what songs to choose," says Slattery. "As I begin to narrow the repertoire (reading songs over and over again) ideas for arrangements come to me. Sitting at my piano, I listen and transcribe what I hear in my mind."

'It's magic'
"It's joy. And love. And different every time," Slattery reflects, describing his experience working with La Nef. "We're all in it: listening, reacting, and we feel it. It's magic."

Michael Slattery has recorded oratorios by Handel with René Jacobs and Nicholas McGegan.

La Nef's Sean Dagher played an important role in conceiving the project. "As my background is more folk than baroque, many of these pieces were new to me," he tells us via email. "So, as with the Dowland in Dublin project, I was simultaneously learning new tunes and coming up with new ways to accompany them. We also increased the forces on this project so we were conscious of having a bigger band and we explored different ways to best exploit it."

Actually, Dagher's collaboration with Slattery dates back to 2004's The Irish Heart, a collection of 12 traditional Irish tunes, including one of the best versions of "Danny Boy" you'll ever hear.

'Oddball projects'
"There's lots to like about working with Michael," reflects Dagher. "First of all, his amazing voice. When I'm playing a song with him, I really feel privileged to have the best seat in the house to hear an awe-inspiring vocal performance.

"Secondly, he's a great arranger and has strong and concrete ideas about the accompaniments we play," Dagher continues. "It's always a real collaboration, not just the singer singing the tune on top of my arrangements. That guarantees that there is something new for me, and something new from me, as well.

"Thirdly, he has shown himself to be adaptable and willing to take on these oddball projects. Just wait until you hear the next thing we're going to do with him at La Nef in 2019 (can't talk about it yet)."

For now, we'll occupy ourselves with The People's Purcell, a project Dagher says was driven by the strong melodic content. "Purcell's melodies have been adapted and re-arranged for centuries, in collections like Playford's Dancing Master. Obviously Purcell's settings of his own melodies are sublime, but the melodies stand on their own and are thus ripe for alternate accompaniments." These include a surprising arrangement of Purcell's familiar Dido's Lament in a major key.

"[Baroque cellist] Amanda Keesmaat did some of the instrumental arrangements," explains Dagher. "She brings a new and surprising twist to all of it, inspired by her experience in contemporary music (before her baroque days). Also, her familiarity with the music in more traditional baroque environments lets her play with it in new ways."

Shruti box
In addition to singing and arranging some of the airs, Slattery plays the shruti box, a drone instrument from 19th-century Indian classical music. "It is a free-reed instrument (like an accordion)," explains Dagher. "The player pumps the bellows activating the reeds, which play the same notes for the whole piece. There is a selection of notes from which to choose, depending on the key of the music. It works in this context because drones can be very useful for many kinds of folk music."

"Another advantage is that the singer can play the shruti box while singing so it doesn't require an extra musician," Dagher adds. "Michael jokes that he got his masters from Juilliard in shruti box, but I should say that he does play it with extra musicality, adding and removing notes during songs and adjusting the relative volumes of the notes for maximum effect."

Robert Rowat - CBC Music First Play