Eccles: The Judgment Of Paris, Mad Songs / Curnyn, Crowe, Hulett, Early Opera Company

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ECCLES The Judgment of Paris & Christian Curnyn (hpd, 1–3 cond); Roderick Williams ( Mercury ); Benjamin Hulett ( Paris ); Susan Bickley ( Juno, mez 3 ); Claire Booth ( Pallas Athena, sop 2 ); Lucy Crowe ( Venus, sop 1 ); Richard Sweeney (gtr, archlute); 1–3 Emilia Benjamin (b vl); 1–3 early op company CHANDOS 759 (62:13 Text and Translation)

& Restless in Thought; 1 Love’s but the frailty of the Mind; 2 I Burn, I burn 3

The Judgment of Paris , the tale of the famed competition between three Olympian goddesses that led to the Trojan War, was itself the subject of a competition. In 1700, a group of English nobility offered up a libretto by the famous William Congreve for competitive setting. Four composers were selected from those who replied to this ad in the London Gazette:

Several Persons of Quality having, for the Encouragement of MUSICK Advanced 200 Guineas, to be distributed in 4 Prizes, the First of 100, the Second of 50, the Third of 30 and the Fourth of 20 Guineas, to such Masters as shall be adjudged to compose the best; this is therefore to give Notice, that those who intend to put in for the Prizes, are to repair to Jacob Tonson at Grays-Inn-Gate before Easter-Day next, where they may be further Informed.

All four completed works were presented on stage individually, in events that, according to Congreve, a social snob of the first water, were “crammed with beauties and beaux, not one scrub being admitted.” This was followed by all four Judgments being offered as a single evening’s entertainment, with subscribers choosing the order of winners. John Weldon, organist of New College, Oxford and a former pupil of Purcell’s, scored something of an upset victory, having little previous theatrical experience. Eccles, the favorite, musical director for the Lincoln’s Inn Fields company and one of the king’s 24 musicians-in-ordinary, came in second, ahead of Daniel Purcell, the late composer’s younger brother. Placing last was Gottfried Finger, a Moravian composer and viol-player who a few professional musicians felt made the best showing of all. According to Roger North, James II’s attorney general and an inveterate concertgoer, Finger complained, perhaps unreasonably, that he had hoped to be “judged by men, and not by boys.” Sadly, his Judgment of Paris is lost, though all three of the others have survived; they were presented in 1989 at Proms concerts, where Eccles was given the palm. I can’t speak to the versions of Weldon or Daniel Purcell, though a bundled recording of all three works would have made for some fine comparisons. In any case, the opera of Eccles is by no means easily dismissed. Choral pieces are handled with distinction. Melodies are usually unadorned, and not infrequently possess a popular cast. The work is technically assured, rhythmically varied, and theatrically alive.

The judgment section of the piece, following the exposition, supplies a good illustration of the composer’s gifts. In it, Eccles differentiates among the three goddesses who seek the golden apple from Paris, providing each with a distinctive ritornello and brief, introductory song. Juno receives a majestic march; Pallas Athena, a graceful chaconne, whose accented second beat seems to sweep all before it; Venus, a minor-key sarabande that utilizes two recorders and a flute in the melodic line to emphasize what the period perceived as femininity. (At least she comes off better than in Tannhäuser .) Congreve shrewdly leaves out all efforts at bribery up to this point, however, leading to confusion in the mind of Paris, and a second, intensified round of presentations by the deific trio. In the fey “Let Ambition fire thy Mind,” Juno delivers a darkly martial, minor-key piece. She promises to Paris the delights of ruling an empire without toil or care. (The concluding verse, given to the divided chorus, with the violins running semiquaver figures, is especially effective.) The theme itself proved catchy enough upon publication to survive as a popular solo fiddle tune of the day. Boswell wrote of his almost obsessive affection for it. Ironically, a friend of mine who was part-timing as a Celtic fiddler once asked me if I knew why an old piece he played was given the odd name of “Let Ambition fire thy Mind.” After that, “Hark, hark! the glorious Voice of War” seems a small step down in energy and character, though it grants Pallas the first appearance of trumpets in the opera, alla battaglia . Venus restores an edge to the competition with “Nature fram’d thee sure for Loving,” a haunting minor key tune whose sensuous intimacy proves Handel wasn’t the only one capable of musically ravishing an English Baroque audience.

The recording concludes with three “mad songs.” These were very popular on London stages at the time, involving a female singer whose unrequited or suddenly terminated love leads to insanity. This chaotic madness is then revealed in a series of rhetorically balanced and logically contoured poems. I confess to little love for the genre, as you might guess from my remarks, but these three of Eccles are at least pleasant, if unmemorable. I find the best of the lot to be “I burn, I burn, my Brain consumes to Ashes,” and that’s at least in part due to its performer, Susan Bickley. If this recording were to offer its own golden apple to one of its three female soloists for articulation, tone, and dramatic interpretation, she would win, hands down. Bickley is one of those mezzos who shade up to a soprano, and her upper range is bright and ringingly glorious in its sound. Claire Booth’s slightly dull tone is not always well supported, and though she enunciates well, I find her far too restrained in lines that brim over with ardor for and joy in war. Lucy Crowe’s sweet tone and refined phrasing makes her an excellent choice for Venus, though, and if she’s rushed a bit in the opera, there’s more expressiveness in her mad song, “Restless in Thought disturb’d in Mind.”

The rest of the cast is top notch. Benjamin Hulett displays an attractive lyric tenor voice, notable for its sensitive deployment of color in “O Ravishing Delight.” Baritone Roderick Williams does a particularly fine job with the phrasing of his only song, “Fear not, Mortal, none shall harm thee.” This is my first exposure to the early opera company, an ensemble of 22 performers; effectively 18, if you disregard the brief appearance of the four trumpets. They deploy two bass violins and a bass viol instead of cellos and double basses on this release, along with a lowered A pitch of 392 Hz. The resulting sound is mellow, if not dark, vitiated by a few rushed tempo choices, notably Venus’s second song. Balance between singers and orchestra is good, with excellent choices for continuo.

It’s great to have this major work by Eccles easily available on disc. Perhaps we can now get the other two extant versions of the opera, as well—or possibly his opera Semele , set to another text by Congreve. Regardless, there’s much to enjoy, here.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CHAN 0759

  • UPC: 095115075920

  • Label: Chandos

  • Composer: John Eccles

  • Conductor: Christian Curnyn

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Early Opera Company, Early Opera Company Chorus

  • Performer: Ben Hulett, Claire Booth, Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, Susan Bickley