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CD reviews

"Son of England"

Katherine Watson, sopranoa; Nicholas Tamagna, altob; Jeffrey Thompson, tenorc; Geoffroy Buffière, bassd
Les Cris de Paris; Le Poème Harmonique
Dir: Vincent Dumestre

rec: Nov 23 - 25, 2016, Paris, Eglise Notre-Dame de Liban
Alpha - 285 (© 2016) (55'44")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Jeremiah CLARKE (1674-1707): Ode on the death of Henry Purcell (Come, come along for a dance and a song)acd; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Funeral Sentences for the death of Queen Mary II (Z 27)abcd; Ode for St Cecilia's Day (Welcome to all the pleasures) (Z 339)bcd

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997, the world saw with astonishment a nationwide outpouring of grief. Wat had happened to that famous British stiff upper lip? That was probably a product of the Victorian era, whose influence was gradually crumbling off. It may have been a feature of the higher classes anyway, and with the increasing visibility of the lower classes in the media their emotions came into the open. It is always risky to compare events from different times, but it is probably not too far-fetched to compare the mourning of the British people in 1997 with the way it reacted to the death of Queen Mary, who was something like a "people's queen", on 28 December 1694. It was the duty of Henry Purcell, the leading composer of his time, to write the music for the funeral ceremony in Westminster Abbey in March 1695.

These Funeral Sentences are in the heart of the programme which Vincent Dumestre put together and recorded for Alpha. These pieces are among Purcell's most famous and have been recorded many times. However, they are not always performed complete. Some performers confine themselves to the two instrumental pieces and the three anthems, others attempt to more or less reconstruct the event, part of which were also anthems by Thomas Morley (for instance Vox Luminis; Ricercar, 2012). There are also differences in the choice of the third anthem, Thou knowest, Lord. Some prefer the setting in form of a verse anthem (Z 58b); here we hear it as a full anthem (Z 58c). For some reason the second anthem, In the midst of life, has been split up into two tracks, the second beginning with the words "Yet, O Lord, most mighty". I can't think of any reason to do that. The two first anthems are mostly sung by the four soloists; in both cases the closing section is sung by the choir. This seems to be in line with the practice at the performance in 1695. Musically speaking the performances are highly unsatisfying. That is largely due to the vibrato of in particular Katherine Watson. It seriously damages the ensemble, and I can't believe that Dumestre has accepted this. The recordings by Vox Luminis and by Robert King (Hyperion, 1994) are to be preferred here.

It was only eight months later that Henry Purcell himself died. He was buried with great honour in Westminster Abbey, and the music he had written for Queen Mary's funeral was performed again. Several composers wrote music in his honour, such as his teacher and friend John Blow, who composed an Ode of the death of Henry Purcell. Another Ode was written by Jeremiah Clarke, who has become mainly known for his so-called 'Trumpet Voluntary', which is in fact a harpsichord piece (The Prince of Denmark's Marche). He was one of the main composers from the post-Purcell generation, and the fact that from 1695 until his death in 1707 he composed a number of works for special occasions suggests that he was seen as Purcell's unofficial 'successor'. Where Blow preferred an intimate piece for two voices, two recorders and bc, Clarke opted for a theatral piece, which was performed in the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. It is a story of a pastoral nature, clearly inspired by the myth of Orpheus: after an overture shepherds celebrate the delights of the woods. Then a messenger - sung by a soprano - enters the scene and brings "the doleful sounds of fate and death". In the next section it is revealed that Strephon has died. He is the bard of the Arcadian forests and here the personification of Purcell. The sorrow is expressed in Mr Purcell's farewell, a quite sinister instrumental piece with long-held notes over a repeated drone of the timpani, depicting a funeral bell. It is the best item on this disc, with nice contributions of Jeffrey Thompson, Geoffrey Buffière, the choir and the orchestra. Unfortunately Buffière is not free of vibrato, but Katherina Watson is much worse, although it it less disturbing than in Purcell's Funeral Sentences, as here she is mostly on her own. She applies it inconsistently, and it is much more than an ornament, and therefore stylistically untenable. This work has also been recorded by Peter Holman (Hyperion, 1992); I haven't heard that performance, but there is a good chance it is more satisfying than the present recording.

The title of this disc is "Son of England", which refers to the important role of Purcell in the English music scene of his time. Luca Dupont-Spirio, in his liner-notes, refers to the dismal state of music at the time the monarchy was restored in 1660. "[It] was Purcell who was to give the nation a voice commensurate with its glorious rebirth and its grandiose ambitions". The fact that he composed so many pieces for celebrations of the state and of the monarchy attests to his status. Among his occasional works we find a number of birthday odes and welcome songs for members of the royal family, and some odes for St Cecilia's Day. In the 17th and 18th centuries the veneration of St Cecilia as patron of music was widespread in Europe, and especially in England. Until the end of the 17th century it was a private affair, but from 1683 on The Musical Society held a celebration in London, which was repeated every year with a service and a concert. It was only to be expected that Purcell was given the honour to deliver the very first Ode, to be performed at the public concert on St Cecilia's Day in 1683. This was Welcome to all the pleasures. One of its parts has become particularly famous: the alto aria 'Here the deities approve', one of many pieces 'on a ground' from Purcell's pen. This genre was highly popular in England and many composers wrote pieces on such a continously repeated bass pattern. This piece is often performed and recorded separately. Over the years I have heard many performances, but hardly ever one which is so disappointing. Nicholas Tamagna has a voice I don't like very much - which obviously is a matter of taste - and which is rather weak. However, that is not the real problem. He sings with a wide vibrato on every note, and as a result this is a pretty horrible performance. The contributions of the other participants - tenor, bass, choir and orchestra - really can't save this Ode.

All in all I am pretty disappointed by this disc. I can't say that I am really surprised. Long have gone the days that you could almost be sure to hear excellent singers in performances of Le Poème Harmonique. The singers of old have gone and these days Dumestre works with different singers. I find the choice of Katherine Watson very unfortunate. She cannot stand in the shadow of the ensemble's first soprano, Claire Lefilliâtre. Can we have her back, please?

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Nicholas Tamagna
Katherine Watson
Les Cris de Paris
Le Poème Harmonique

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