Here are two versions of a song by Henry Purcell, “When first Amintas sued for a kiss.” I believe it is theater music, of which Purcell composed a lot, but I can’t recall right now. The first one is Emma Kirkby and the second, beginning at 1.58, is Christine Brandes.
I both enjoy and detest Emma Kirkby’s voice, but that is not the issue right now. Both she and Brandes are native English speakers (Kirkby is English and Brandes is American) and so there is none of the odd inflection or difficulties with ‘th’ or ‘wh’ that you sometimes hear when non-Anglophones perform this type of music. I bring this up because these are both singers who can be expected to work with the details of the text very easily.
Kirkby’s performance is basically what you would expect if you have ever heard her before. This was recorded in 1986, and she sounds like she usually does (or did): she’s a very intelligent singer, and you can tell that every detail has been well considered, but her voice itself is a little dry, a little too ‘pure’ for my taste. It’s a very good voice for church music, of which she has recorded quite a lot.
Brandes has a stronger personality. Her interpretation is slightly more tongue-in-cheek (listen to the second iteration of ‘the golden coast’ towards the end) and she and her accompanist (a harpsichord rather than a lute as with Kirkby) play with the tempo a little more. Brandes gives an impression of offering a little snippet of Restoration opera, while Kirkby’s performance both in terms of rhythm and phrasing is more clearly ‘this is a (slightly naughty little) song.’ You get a sense that Brandes’s version would work better in a big hall and Kirkby’s with a small audience.
There are also some differences in the music. Here I think Kirkby and Rooley (the lutenist) get the better deal. At 0.48 we get a little passage that jumps out of the key the rest of the piece is in; Brandes and her accompanist use a more straightforward version. This little leap is a rather pretty way of indicating that something startling or at the very least unfamiliar is about to happen to the song’s protagonist.
Kirkby is probably the more subtle singer here. The dynamic variations and the way she finishes each phrase — this is clearly a very high quality performance. If you put a gun to my head and demanded me to cough up which version I think is better in absolute terms, I’d probably says that hers is. That said, though, there is something about Brandes that I just like. I heard her sing Susanna at the New York City Opera years ago and although in technical terms I have heard better (on stage, she can sound as if she’s really making an effort to place each phrase where she wants it), there was such a strong sense of humor and personality about the performance that . . . well, as I said, I like her, that’s all.