John Galliard: Pan and Syrinx | Purcell: The Masque of Cupid and Bacchus

Musica ad Rhenum, Jed Wentz (Brilliant Classics 93776)

15 January 2009 4 stars

Pan and SyrinxThis recording contains two compositions that come at the twilight of English Theatre music, at the point in the eighteenth century when the popularity of Italian opera became all-consuming.

In many ways, the release of this lesser-known work by John Galliard makes this demise all the more lamentable. This one-act opera is surprisingly high quality in several ways. The libretto is bright, lively and lyrical, and its consice nature works in its favour. The narrative pace is quick and this helps to captivate the audience's interest throughout. The subject matter too, was a wise choice by Galliard: the story – although showing similarity with other transformation myths popular at the time – was a relatively unexplored tale.

Lyrics and concept aside, it is the music itself that shines through as the greatest element of this short opera. Galliard's composition is pleasingly original and entrancing – easily comparable with Purcell's operatic output. The similarities between Galliard's theatrical work and that of Purcell are no great surprise, as he would have no doubt been exposed to a great deal of his work during his time in London. He is recorded as being very closely associated with the city's theatrical life whilst in residence, so it is natural that this interest and passion for English theatre music lies at the heart of this work. This is, no doubt how the wise pairing of Galliard's opera with Purcell's brief Masque of Cupid and Bacchus came about. The opera was very popular in 1718, when it was written, and was often performed after plays at the theatre, including Timon of Athens, in which Purcell's masque featured.

John Galliard's life was in fact a multicultural montage of European influences and musical education. Although born in Germany in 1687, both his parents were in fact French. The court orchestra of his hometown Celle, where he was an oboist for over eight years, were also well known for their French style of performance. Italian influences came from the composition teachers of his earlier years (Stefani and Farinelli). It was in 1706 that he moved to London, where, as previously mentioned, not only did he become involved in the music of the theatre, but also continued his career as an oboist – so successfully in fact, that Handel wrote the oboe solos in Teseo especially for him. Perhaps it is this exquisite mix of European influences and experience in Galliard's life that make is music so individual.

With a bright and secure ensemble performance from Musica ad Rhenum at the foundation of this work, several solo performances stood out. Nicola Wemyss's Diana is a delightful addition to the recording. Although her role is small, Weymess offers a goddess with a mellifluous tone, most beautifully shown in her aria where she reflects on the importance of 'rage and wild desire' in relationships, in order for love to spark.

Syrinx (Johanette Zomer) also gives an impassioned performance, with many fine moments throughout - most notably, her first aria 'Free from Sorrow', where she soars through to the cadenza-like passage, evoking the peace and felicity of her present mood. Pan, performed by Marc Pantus, has a fantastically lively interchange with Syrinx just before her metamorphosis (having succumbed to the allure of Pan, she is changed into reeds), which very aptly portrays the distress and anxiety at this key point in the narrative. The lamenting aria from Pan that follows hard upon at this moment of change – 'Surprising Change! Must I the Charmer Lose?'is wonderfully illustrative of Pan's distress. It is perhaps only spoilt a little by the recorder entries; although a well-blended sound, the ensemble between instruments and soloist is not exact at this point. However, this minor discrepancy is more than redeemed in the two Bourées, which fall just before the final chorus and feature a dazzling flourish of running passages and tight, vivacious ensemble playing.

Despite the opera's success when it was composed in 1718, Galliard's attempts to revive it in 1726 sadly met with great disappointment. Let us hope that thanks to Brilliant Classics' new recording of this fine work, at least a little of the popularity it received in its heyday can be regained for what is a fantastic, undervalued gem of early English Opera.

By Claudine Nightingale