John Eccles: Semele
AAM Records [2 CDs]
Shortlisted for the 2021 Gramophone Award
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ and Recording of the Month – BBC Music Magazine
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ and Classical Album of the Week – The Guardian
Disc of the Month – Opera
Editor's Choice – Gramophone
Record of the Week – BBC Radio 3
Critics' Choice – Financial Times
Classical Album of the Week – The Week
Editor's Choice – Limelight
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Planet Hugill
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Classical Source
The Academy of Ancient Music, Cambridge Handel Opera Company, Cambridge Early Music and Julian Perkins are proud to present the first professional recording of John Eccles’s scintillating Semele (c.1707), the first setting of the great English libretto by William Congreve, better known in G. F. Handel’s version of 1744.
Hear about this opera on Cambridge Early Music's podcast here.
Read Julian's preface to this recording here.
Read Julian's interview with Presto Classical here.
Jupiter, King of the Gods – Richard Burkhard, baritone
Juno, Queen of the Gods – Helen Charlston, mezzo soprano
Iris, handmaid to Juno – Héloïse Bernard, soprano
Cupid, God of Love – Bethany Horak-Hallett, mezzo soprano
Somnus, God of Sleep – Christopher Foster, bass
Apollo, Sun God and God of Prophecy – Jolyon Loy, baritone
Cadmus, King of Thebes – Jonathan Brown, baritone
Semele, daughter of Cadmus – Anna Dennis, soprano
Ino, sister of Semele – Aoife Miskelly, soprano
Athamas, a prince of Bœotia – William Wallace, tenor
Chief Priest – Graeme Broadbent, bass
Second Priest / First Augur – Rory Carver, tenor
Third Priest / Second Augur – James Rhoads, tenor
Julian Perkins, Director & Harpsichord
Academy of Ancient Music
'A real discovery… the documentation is outstanding; so much context to pore over in the 200-page book… But it’s the music that’s the winner; the more I listen the more I love this. What a resurrection it is.'
BBC Radio 3 Record Review – Record of the Week
'..a scintillating triumph... Thanks to Perkins's deft casting, each principal's vocalism and dramatis persona are wonderfully matched... The Academy of Ancient Music's playing is just as fascinating. Perkins directs from the harpsichord with a demonic intensity. When individual band members take over the storytelling, their solos gild Eccles's invention with their own... Perkins commands a gamut of responses to the ensembles' charms, from crystal-clear voicing to big, fat homophonic swells. ... this is a superb reconstruction of a lost Eccles masterpiece.'
BBC Music Magazine – Recording of the Month
'…the pace whips along, as jewel-like solos flash past, interspersed with vividly descriptive instrumental numbers… Julian Perkins gets a fizzing performance out of the Academy of Ancient Music, enough to make Eccles seem a rival to Handel…'
Financial Times – Critics' Choice
'It is difficult to imagine greater justice currently being done to this opera than it receives here. Testament to the depth of thought and preparation that has gone into the performance is fully laid out in the superbly produced accompanying 200-page booklet … The hero of the performance is undoubtably Julian Perkins, who conducts as if every bar means the world to him, pacing the work with assurance and drawing splendid playing from the strings of the AAM … All the major roles are outstandingly taken … as this outstanding recording proves, it’s a damn good opera. As such it fully servers to take a place in the repertoire of British companies.'
Opera – Disc of the Month
''This opera oozes drama’ writes Julian Perkins in his note, and goes on to prove his point. Pacing, not least in the expressive recitatives, is fluid and natural, the playing of AAM strings tingles with theatrical life and the young cast is uniformly fine … superb'.
Gramophone – Editor's Choice
'The Academy of Ancient Music’s new recording of John Eccles’ Semele is nothing short of a revelation…. The sheer virtuosity of the Symphony that opens act III is breathtaking, especially when captured in Alexander Van Ingen and Dave Rowell’s superbly present recording. Performed to the very highest vocal, instrumental and scholarly standards, this is simply unmissable.'
'With the Academy of Ancient Music, the director Julian Perkins reveals a work that exceeds the superficially attractive, his charged reading embracing high drama and deep emotion. Excellent performances from Richard Burkhard (Jupiter), Anna Dennis (Semele) and the remarkable Helen Charlston (Juno).'
'The work recorded here, [Eccles’] opera Semele, is definitely no tiddler, especially when performed with the forthright flourish that the director and harpsichordist Julian Perkins’s musicians and singers bring to the task … Among the universally strong cast, Anna Dennis makes the most of every word as the confused heroine who bites off rather more than she can chew. Richard Burkhard is properly muscular as Jupiter; William Wallace quivers nicely as the agitated Athamas, Semele’s intended; while Bethany Horak-Hallett makes such an eloquent Cupid that I only wish this god of love had flown into view more often. Handsomely packaged with copious documentation, this is a recording that by rights should put Eccles on the map.'
'Colourful musical gem… impeccably produced… The role of Semele herself is beautifully sung by Anna Denns, and the rest of the large cast is excellent, too. Julian Perkins conducts them and the AAM players in a performance that’s gratifyingly light on its feet… puts this Semele, and its composer, firmly on the map.'
'I enjoyed this disc immensely… what Perkins and his performers bring out is that this Semele is as vivid as a drama as its successor… Reviving one of the forgotten gems of English opera, this first professional recording of Eccles and Congreve’s drama is revelatory, bringing out the work’s wit, charm and drama…'
'...lavishly packaged, presented and researched new account… gives this work the passionate advocacy it has long been waiting for… Perkins directs a crisp, energised account from the orchestra, with plenty of character in the continuo playing.'
Limelight – Editor's Choice
'Long deprived of a modern edition, Eccles' music is beginning to resurface as evidenced by this recording of his Semele … Julian Perkins leads a dozen excellent soloists and the joint forces of the Cambridge Handel Opera Company, Cambridge Early Music and the Academy of Ancient Music … This new version is a real revelation.'
Les amis d’Ovide
'No stone has been left unturned in producing Eccles’ Semele; it is given a performance it truly deserves, shining light on a composer and opera unduly neglected. A recommended listen for those with an interest in music of this period. There is much to enjoy musically and musicologically in this diligent and all-encompassing release.'
The Classic Review
'… if one were to select a pinnacle of the English Baroque, they would be hard-pressed to find a more representative example than this … With world premiere recordings being issued with ever-greater frequency, it can be challenging to find those works that contribute something worthwhile to the canon, much less provide an eye-opening exploration of something revelatory, but Semele does just that.'
The Whole Note
'Eccles tended to work on a smaller scale than the operatic but he is notably deft when it comes to instrumental touches, such as violin obbligati, the structurally important use of the wind machine, and of tempest-styled intensity. It’s this adrenalin that I also ascribe to Julian Perkins, who directs the Academy of Ancient Music from the harpsichord. I’ve just listened to his vivacious playing of the keyboard music of the obscure English composer John Worgan (Toccata TOCC 0375) who was active compositionally after Eccles had retired, and his performance of sometimes somewhat eccentric music is wonderfully vivid, as is his direction of Semele. He encourages bracing tempi without allowing them to become breathless or short-winded. Pacing of the recitatives is finely judged (the opening recitative of Act II between Juno and Iris is a perfect case in point – not wilfully rushed but maintaining its own natural rhythm). Orchestral discipline is assured, and individual contributions are poised. The Symphony that opens Act III is pizzicato laced and full of interest. ...your ear will be enjoying this tightly produced, outstandingly well sung and splendidly performed Italianate opera.'
'La baguette de Julian Perkins témoigne d’un sens raffiné du tempo et de nuances dynamiques. Grâce à une remarquable transparence des textures, une légère souplesse agogique et la finesse des attaques dans les cordes, le mouvement se pare d’une éloquence à la fois passionnée et poétique, mettant en valeur les rythmes et la beauté des lignes. Pour les airs, l’accompagnement se montre parfaitement adapté à la respiration des solistes, favorisant théâtralité et cohérence narrative.'
'El projecte del director i clavecinista Julian Perkins és una deliciosa troballa, una autèntica joia oblidada de l’òpera anglesa. ... Julian Perkins dirigeix aquesta elogiosa versió amb un selecte repartiment de solistes acompanyats pel Cambridge Handel Opera Company, el Cambridge Early Music i l’Academy of Ancient Music. Aquesta òpera recitativa amb breus àries i una història avança ràpidament, conté unes encisadores parts instrumentals ... com l’obertura, les simfonies i les danses, com la dansa dels zèfirs o la magnífica dansa dels sàtirs que clou l’òpera.'
'Die Academy of Ancient Music hat das Werk nun im Eigenverlag in luxuriöser Ausstattung veröffentlicht, dargeboten von einem exzellenten 15-köpfigen Sängerensemble. Auch das um Continuo-Instrumente erweiterte Streichorchester spielt unter Julian Perkins mit stilistischem Gespür.'
Naxos [3 CDs]
World première recording of Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart – a tale of misguided loyalty, passion and fate.
Dating from 1979, Stephen Dodgson's opera tells the story of Suffolk heroine, criminal and chronicler, Margaret Catchpole. It immerses us in the internal battle between her good character and values, and her heartfelt loyalty to the man she loves, the smuggler Will Laud.
Read Julian's blog entry for Gramophone here.
Read Julian's interview with Presto Classical here.
Margaret Catchpole – Kate Howden, mezzo-soprano
Will Laud – William Wallace, tenor
John Luff – Nicholas Morris, bass
John Barry – Alistair Ollerenshaw, baritone
Crusoe – Richard Edgar-Wilson, tenor
Mrs Cobbold – Diana Moore, mezzo-soprano
Dr Stebbing – Peter Willcock, bass
Judge – Matthew Brook, bass
Mrs Palmer – Julia Sporsén, soprano
Guard – Jon Stainsby, baritone
Alice/Lucy – Robyn Allegra Parton, soprano
Farmer Denton – Michael Bundy, bass
Mrs Denton – Leonora Dawson-Bowling, mezzo-soprano
First labourer – Jonathan Hanley, tenor
Second labourer – Mark Saberton, baritone
Julian Perkins, Conductor
'...The Perpetuo ensemble play beautifully throughout, the whole directed impeccably by Julian Perkins.'
'...recalling the light instrumental textures and immaculate word setting of works by Britten, the opera has a powerful presence and flawless skilfulness. ...the whole cast of 15 is impressive.'
'The recording is of a concert performance, given at Snape Maltings in 2019 to mark the bicentenary of Catchpole’s death, with a largely Suffolk-born cast. Australian mezzo-soprano Kate Howden provides Antipodean representation – and much more besides – as Catchpole. William Wallace beguiles as bad boy Will Laud and Alistair Ollerenshaw is strong as the reliable, eventual ‘public benefactor’ John Barry. Unusually for an opera with an eponymous heroine, there’s even a happy ending.'
BBC Music Magazine ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
'Conductor, Julian Perkins, does a superb job with Chamber Orchestra, Perpetuo. The musical Interludes between the scenes were not only a delight but moved the story forward in an interesting way. ...The singers on the recording are wonderful interpreters of this highly textured score. Made up of a cast of fifteen they constitute an impressive line-up. Dodgson writes well for them and the music contributes much to their characterisation. It’s not only about the voice but the delivery. Much attention is paid to speech patterns and rhythm. ...It’s a long time since I have been so gripped by an opera narrative and so involved in all its characters and that is due to the cohesiveness of the piece. But the biggest surprise to me was the wonderful score. Naxos has produced a marvellous recording and the sleeve notes are excellent. Highly recommended – this opera will appeal to a wide audience.'
'Throughout, Dodgson links his scenes with atmospheric orchestral interludes which greatly add to the interest of the opera, and Perkins gets fine performances of these from the members of Perpetuo. These interludes partly contribute to the work's leisurely feel, but yet they are musically so strong, and Perkins and his players make them an integral part of the opera. ...the singers' diction is excellent which means that you hardly need a crib to follow the action. ...The recording is notable for the vividness of the performances and the tidiness of detail in a contemporary piece is admirable. Dodgson's final opera has full justice done to it on disc.'
'...the sound is impeccable both in quality and balance between singers and orchestra.'
David's Review Corner
Daniel Purcell: The Judgment of Paris
World première recording
In 1700 a group of English patrons devised a competition for settings of a libretto by William Congreve. It attracted four entrants: John Eccles, Gottfried Finger, John Weldon and Daniel Purcell, younger cousin or brother of the late Henry Purcell. Paris, a shepherd, is visited by Mercury, Messenger of the Gods, who gives him the Golden Apple of Discord, which he has to award to the most deserving of three goddesses – Venus, Pallas (Athene) or Juno. Daniel Purcell’s setting manifests a richly inventive and innovative musical style in a bold attempt to create a school of all-sung English opera.
Anna Dennis Venus – Goddess of Love
Amy Freston Pallas – Goddess of War
Ciara Hendrick Juno – Goddess of Marriage
Samuel Boden Paris – a shepherd
Ashley Riches Mercury – Messenger of the Gods
Julian Perkins conductor
Audio samples and booklet are available at Resonus Classics
'Thanks to this well-made recording, with a cast led by soprano Anna Dennis and [tenor] Samuel Boden, an overlooked episode in English musical history is exposed.'
'This is one of Resonus’s most enjoyable discoveries and it’s my own personal favourite. I’ve made it a Recording of the Month for many reasons: as well as making available some fine music which has been largely ignored, it introduces us – me, at any rate – to some fine young performers… the work is delightful – not the equal of Henry’s Dido and Æneas but as entertaining as his Indian Queen – and the performances do it excellent service.'
'The florid writing is extremely well handled here by a splendid cast, Samuel Boden's Paris and Ashley Riches' Mercury in particular, while the opera is directed by Julian Perkins with verve and wit.'
Early Music Today
'Daniel Purcell’s drama is absorbing and certainly musically entertaining… high-quality entertainment.'
BBC Radio 3 CD Review
'It is a pleasure to welcome this recording for the sake of Daniel Purcell's opera but doubly so because Perkins and his forces give a delightfully involving and stylish performance which is more than recommendable on its own terms.
Samuel Boden makes a fine Paris with a lovely lyric tenor voice. His lovely seductive tones and lyrical cantilena impress particularly in his final aria when he makes his judgement in fine style. His three goddesses are Anna Dennis, Amy Freston and Clara Hendricks, each a charming delight. Dennis is suitably seductive as Venus, Hendricks is a very spirited Juno and Amy Freston a bravura Pallas. Ashley Riches makes a deeply dignified and involving Mercury at the opening.
The opera consists of a series of short numbers, 31 in all, with each goddess getting a little scene. Though I have seen it live many years ago, I have to confess to no remembrance of it in performance. But from this disc I think it would make a highly effective and delightful stage work.
Though the airs are short, the vocal writing is not uncomplicated and all soloists are stylish and involving. Spiritato! lives up to its name, giving us a spirited and sophisticated performance. There is crisp support from the Rodolfus Choir. Perkins keeps the work flowing nicely and gets a stylish performance all round.'
'In rescuing Daniel Purcell’s… delightful short semi-opera, The Judgement of Paris (1701) from canonical oblivion, the Spiritato! ensemble, under the musical direction of Julian Perkins, has done lovers of baroque music a great service.'
British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies - concert review
'... in the rescuing hands of Spiritato!, the Rodolfus Choir and a strong team of soloists in this celebratory performance at St John’s Smith Square, Purcell’s (largely neglected) opera sparkled at us across the silent centuries with joyful conviction, playfulness and verve.'
Bachtrack - concert review