My gift to you today: tune your Spotify or Apple Music to the collection Purcell’s Revenge: Sweeter Than Roses? by Concerto Caledonia, a Scottish chamber music outfit that is pretty hard to pin down. Progressive early music? Why not?
The record is devoted to the songs of the great English composer (three words not often repeated in that order in the concert-music world) Henry Purcell. Among other distinctions, the seventeenth-century composer and his predecessor John Dowland strike me as the very first sad sack, besotted melancholic Anglo confessional singer-songwriters, some 300 years ahead of Sandy Denny or the stars of Laurel Canyon. And, startlingly, not all that different from either.
Head right for track two, “There’s Not a Swain,” which features a crushingly beautiful performance (voice and guitar) by the contemporary British folk artist Olivia Chaney.
The song was written for a man to sing. While the melody is beautiful, and strangely modal, no matter who is voicing it, in the mouth of a man the lyrics read like little more than the complaint of a rebuffed suitor looking for a little smile or some other amorous green light and throwing a fit when he doesn’t get it. Flip the gender, hand it over to the interpretive powers of one of the very purest singers we have, and you get this: bottomless riches of dark pathos and pain, a stunning view into the heart of love begrudged, stern neglect and oppression, and a heart pleading from the prison of a loveless relationship. Ouch and wow!