The People’s Purcell

Michael Slattery & La Nef are back with another recording from ATMA.


A few years ago they collaborated on Dowland in Dublin. On that occasion their project took the music  in a new direction, reminding me of folk music or even pub music. Layers of artifice were cleared away to expose an approach to the composer from a more informal world, a whole other way of hearing & performing the music.

At the time I remember wondering what they might do next, whether there were any other composers they might uncover, revisit, rethink.

And that’s what I thought of when I saw the cover of The People’s Purcell, their latest.

Was there something comparable at work? In the Dowland album they presented a theory that there was an Irish connection, and from there took the music in a wholly new direction, undertaken in a new way. The album made a compelling case for rethinking the composer, even if it began as nothing more than a fun experiment, like the ones we sometimes do when we’re playing around the piano, improvising something hypothetical. What happens if I play the Pathetique in Major instead of minor, or add a dotted rhythm to this Mozart sonata, or play this half as fast or twice as fast. What happens as in, is it funny or is it actually any good?

I am sometimes the fastest person I know: at watching & writing & publishing. I’ll see a show from 8-10 pm, drive home to Scarborough and usually have the review published within the hour, allowing me to go to bed & be up for work the next day. And sometimes? If I’m not sure, if there’s something deeper at work, I may balk, pausing to ponder. This is especially so with CDs & DVDs, where there is no public performance to be promoted by the review, and so the time-frame ceases to matter.

I first listened to The People’s Purcell months ago. It was winter and now spring is giving way to summer. I’ve driven about with this CD on my car’s stereo. I can hum most of this to myself by now because I know every note of the CD. Yet I was stopped, as I tried to understand what was really going on, to make sure I could get a handle on what they were doing, or at least to understand my response, my passionate enthusiasm.

Don’t lose sight of one thing. I really like The People’s Purcell even if I have been pondering it for weeks, unsure of what to say. Just because I can’t really explain its charm or deconstruct it into neat categories doesn’t diminish its achievement. Indeed it’s rather unpretentious, so maybe the key is to just accept it on its own terms. I don’t know what the thought process was behind the People’s Purcell nor do I know exactly what that title meant to them, only that it’s meaningful to me after having listened to this album for several weeks in the car, one of my favourite experimental laboratories.

I find the title very suggestive, very powerful, to tell me what this music has become in the hands of La Nef & Slattery, and perhaps along the way they’ve discovered something about Purcell and how he is traditionally approached. Please feel free to find the answer to the question if you would, in someone else’s review or interview.

The thing is, this really feels like a new way of approaching Purcell, a Purcell I’ve never heard before. The usual Purcell is more formal, more stuffy than this pub-flavored performance. The way La Nef make music it sounds like folk music, even when they’re playing something usually understood as serious baroque music. I found myself imagining musicians after hours, taking the music to the tavern, or playing among themselves, and making something fun out of more serious compositions.

Why you may ask, would anyone need a “people’s Purcell”? unless perhaps the composer has somehow been submerged in something else, lost, misplaced. Whose Purcell was it if not the people’s? Perhaps we’ve had a more pretentious Purcell, the virtuoso’s Purcell or the composer as treated by big institutions such as the church or conservatories. However he’s been represented, this is a kind of unpretentious re-think. Or maybe it’s simply Purcell among the people rather than up above us, a less lofty and ambitious version of a composer sometimes held up as the greatest of all English composers. And how wonderful must he be that he shows himself in a whole new light, even in this rough guise?  I should add, that if you’re someone who loves the way Purcell is usually performed, you’ll think what I just wrote is nonsense, hogwash, PR- BS. But I confess, I am always ready for another look, another approach.

And this is why I keep listening to this CD. Well, there’s also the small matter of my admiration & enjoyment of Michael Slattery’s voice, its impeccable diction & pitch, the directness of communication without the overlay of too much artifice. We have ornamented music on this CD where the ornaments feel natural and organic, rather than forced or artificial. That in itself is an achievement, as though we’re seeing the compositions more clearly, hearing the thought more truly. And his collaboration with La Nef is again such a natural thing, as though the music of Purcell were always played in taverns and bars. HAS it ever been played there?

Perhaps it’s most accurate to say that I was daunted initially by this CD because it straddles boundaries, doesn’t immediately declare itself as opera or classical, neither this nor that. That’s one of its strengths arguably even as that has been the reason I didn’t review it for weeks and weeks. And now as we’re into the summer I want to put out the review, to encourage people to have this the way I have it, ideal for the car as you travel to the cottage or just enjoying a drive with the windows down.

We begin with something called ”An Evening Hymn” that is a perfect illustration of what’s different about this CD.

Let me first link to a typical recording of this piece from youtube.

The voice is lovely, the accompaniment delightful. Notice that this is a hymn that addresses the whole question of how it would be sung, how to deport itself.

Now that the sun hath veil’d his light
And bid the world goodnight;
To the soft bed my body I dispose,
But where shall my soul repose?

Dear, dear God, even in Thy arms,
And can there be any so sweet security!
Then to thy rest, O my soul!
And singing, praise the mercy
That prolongs thy days.


This hymn is almost a prayer within a prayer, asking God: how to pray, how to approach God.

Here’s another recording, also quite wonderful!

I’ve listened to several, and they are ALL wonderful. It’s a fabulous little piece of music.

Dare I say it, the version by Slattery & La Nef (sorry I am not presenting it for you) manages to strip away the veneer of art, to get to the essence of the music without making it seem so difficult. In making it seem effortless I feel closer to spirit: the essence of prayer & spirituality. To each his own, naturally. But that’s where I was first won, in that sense of directness & sincerity, of a music with just enough art as to make something beautiful, with enough spontaneity as to allow me to feel what must be felt. Slattery’s evening hymn becomes a different hymn. We’re not in a church that’s for sure. Might we be alone with him as he prays? it’s not big and loud. Where would we imagine this being sung? It seems like a very direct address to the creator, as though in a private space, in a bed softly at bedtime or out in a field alone looking up at the night sky. I think it’s closer to the language of the actual hymn as it benefits from informality, creating intimacy missing from any other version I’ve encountered. They’re all more rhetorical, more formal. This one? is vulnerable and gentle and yes even cute. I find it adorable, heart-breaking in its simplicity.

Let’s try another example. “Let each gallant heart” is a song about love.

Let each gallant heart,
Untouch’d with love’s dart,
Prepare for his secret alarms;
That sluggish repose
Wherein now thou art,
Affords far less numerous charms,
For the warfare of love
Yields a thousand times more
Sweets and delights than your dull peace before.

Long torment ’tis sure
We must calmly endure,
Before the dear prize we obtain.
Yet still the hard toil
Is part of the cure,
And such pleasures we find in our pain,
That the warfare of love
Yields a thousand times more
Blissful delights than your dull peace before.

The text is playful, the realm of love becoming a metaphorical site of warfare. How to approach it?

Here’s one way to read the text & music

I find it somewhat formal, so caught up in being authentic to the baroque style that it’s not really playful. It’s a nice performance, but, well I’m comparing it to what Slattery & La Nef do, and that’s a problem, because I can’t unhear the fun they have.

So let’s finally hear some of Slattery & La Nef so you can have some idea what I’m raving about..!

After the People’s Purcell, I will never be quite the same about any of this music. I will always ask myself: how would they have done it? The entire CD asks me –and perhaps you too – to reconsider Purcell, hear him in a new way. Are we hearing some of the implications in the music, perhaps folk influences? or did they simply go off on a mad folk tangent? I am not sure it matters, or at least it doesn’t matter to me. I am not listening to this as a definitive Purcell but rather as an alternative, a kind of deconstructed or reconstructed Purcell, synthesized from folk music, as though he were played in pubs & taverns rather than concert halls & conservatories.  I am wondering, are all those precise classical artists perhaps being too strict, not playful enough? It’s an unpretentious project, this rethink of Purcell. If you ask them to document or prove this by some kind of musicological criteria, it must fail. But it’s the Purcell you might hear in a bar over a few drinks, not the Purcell you’d ever find in the concert hall: unless of course they invite La Nef & Slattery to perform there.

They certainly have my ear.

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1 Response to The People’s Purcell

  1. Pingback: The Angel Speaks | barczablog

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