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"My beloved spake - Anthems by Henry Purcell & Pelham Humfrey"

Iestyn Davis, altoa; James Gilchrist, tenorb; David Stout, baritonec; Neal Davies, bassd
Choir of St John's College, Cambridge; St John's Sinfoniae; John Challenger, organf
Dir: Andrew Nethsingha

rec: Jan 13 - 15, 2012, Cambridge, St John's College Chapel
Chandos - CHAN 0790 ( 2012) (69'41")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Pelham HUMFREY (1647-1674): Evening Service in e minor (Magnificat; Nunc dimittis)f; O Lord my God, verse anthemabde; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Behold, now, praise the Lord, verse anthem (Z 3)abde; Hear my prayer, O Lord, full anthem (Z 15); Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei, motet (Z 135)bde; My beloved spake, verse anthem (Z 28)abcde; O sing unto the Lord, verse anthem (Z 44)abde; Rejoice in the Lord alway, verse anthem (Z 49)abde; Remember not, Lord, our offences, full anthem (Z 50)

[St John's Sinfonia] Margaret Faultless, Simon Jones, violin; Jane Rogers, viola; Andrew Skidmore, bass violin; William Hunt, great bass viol; Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo; John Challenger, organ

When Henry VIII cut the ties with Rome and the Church of England came into existence, the English language made its appearance in the liturgy. Composers started to set English texts to music, either from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer. The result was a rich repertoire of music which spans about five centuries and is still very much alive. The anthem, as the English counterpart of the Latin motet was called, falls into two categories: the full anthem which is scored for tutti, and the verse anthem in which passages for tutti are interspersed by episodes for one or more solo voices. In the second half of the 17th century Henry Purcell and John Blow were two of the main composers of anthems, both verse and full anthems.

This disc is largely devoted to Purcell, who is accompanied by his lesser-known and slightly older contemporary Pelham Humfrey. He started his career as a choirboy in the Chapel Royal and at an early age attracted some attention with his compositions. He went abroad and studied in Italy and France which had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. Instead of the traditional counterpoint he was interested in the theatrical style he had become acquainted with at the continent. In his compositions which he wrote after his return this influence is easily recognizable.

The anthem O Lord my God gives some idea of his mastery in setting a text in music in a dramatic way. In his liner-notes Jeremy Summerly rightly states: "Had Humfrey lived into his thirties, there is no doubt that he would have found the lure of the stage as irresistible as did his younger contemporary Henry Purcell". The anthem begins with a dramatic solo for bass, whose opening figure clearly refers to John Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan. Later on Humfrey creates a dialogue of alto and tenor versus bass, exploring the dramatic content of these verses from Psalm 22: "They pierc'd my hands and my feet (...). They part my garments among them (...)".
If one listens to Humfrey's music one can only regret that his life was so short and that such a small oeuvre has been preserved.

It is needless to say how well Purcell was able to translate a text into music; his oeuvre is full of pieces which prove that. My beloved spake is a brilliant example which eloquently depicts verses from the second chapter of the Song of Solomon: "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. (...) And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land (...)". Equally impressive is Rejoice in the Lord alway, one of Purcell's best-known anthems, a setting of the verses 4 to 7 from St Paul's letter to the Philippians.

The disc opens with one of Purcell's full anthems, Remember not, Lord, our offences. It shows his command of counterpoint but also his ability to use harmony for expressive purposes. That comes even more to the fore in the short anthem Hear my prayer, O Lord, where striking dissonances are used to illustrate the text: "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee", the opening verse of Psalm 102. Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei is a motet in Latin, which was still used in the liturgy in Purcell's time.

Composers of sacred music also wrote music for the Morning and Evening Services. Part of them are texts such as the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis, Te Deum and Jubilate. These are usually more straightforward, as one would expect. That is also the case with Humfrey's setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis from his Evening Service in e minor. Even so he didn't miss the opportunity to vividly illustrate the words "he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts" (Magnificat).

Musically speaking this is a most compelling disc. It is especially enjoyable that two of Humfrey's compositions are included. His music is not part of the standard repertoire as yet. If you want to hear more of his music you should investigate a disc entirely devoted to his anthems, under the direction of Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia mundi, 1992). Otherwise the choice of music is a little disappointing as all of Purcell's compositions are fairly well known and available on disc. I would have preferred a more adventurous programming.

Unfortunately the performances are also not entirely satisfying. The tutti parts lack transparency which is partly due to the choir's size; a smaller ensemble is to be preferred in this repertoire. The vibrato in some of the lower voices doesn't make things any better. As a result the harmonic peculiarities in, for instance, Hear my prayer, O Lord, don't get their full impact. Remember not, Lord, our offences could have taken profit from a more precise articulation and more dynamic shading. This performance is too flat. The Italian pronunciation in Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei is historically unjustified.

The solo parts are more problematic, though. I have already indicated that Humfrey's anthem O Lord my God is highly dramatic, and especially the solo part of the bass. That is not lost on Neal Davies, but unfortunately he takes the freedom to sing that part quite loudly, with an incessant and wide vibrato. That is stylistically untenable. He takes a step down when he joins the alto and tenor, but their voices don't blend that well. Moreover, there is too much difference between his singing and that of the other soloists and the choir. The solo parts should be more integrated in the ensemble. The lack of blending of the solo voices also damages the performance of Rejoice in the Lord alway. Here I still prefer the good old recording with the King's College Choir under Gustav Leonhardt.

Disappointing are also the contributions of St John's Sinfonia. Their playing is rather feeble and bland. There is too little dynamic shading and the dramatic and contrasting character of many anthems is not reflected by the playing of the ensemble.

On balance I am not really impressed by this disc. As all pieces by Purcell are available in other recordings I don't think that it is a substantial enrichment of the discography.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Relevant links:

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge


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