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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Royal Welcome Songs for King James II"

The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: June 8 - 10, 2016, London, Church of St Augustine's, Kilburn
Coro - COR16151 ( 2017) (64'02")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

A New Irish Tune in G 'Lilliburlero' (Z 646)a; A New Scotch Tune ni G (Z 655)a; Chacony in g minor (Z 730); God is gone up with a merry noise, canon a 7 (Z 107); Save me, O God, for thy name's sake, anthem (Z 51); Sound the trumpet, beat the drum (Welcome Song for James II) (Z 335) True Englishmen drink a good health, catch a 3 (Z 284); Ye tuneful muses, raise your heads (Welcome Song for James II) (Z 344); When on my sick bed I languish (Z 144)

Katy Hill, Kirsty Hopkins, soprano; Daniel Collins, alto; Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Stuart Young, bass; Rebecca Miles, Ian Wilson, recorder; Sarah Sexton, Sarah Moffatt, Sophie Barber, Daniel Edgar, Jean Paterson, Ellen O'Dell, violin; Martin Kelly, Stefanie Heichelheim, Jane Norman, viola; Joseph Crouch, Imogen Seth-Smith, Jonathan Rees, cello; David Miller, theorbo; Frances Kelly, harp; Alastair Ross, harpsichord (soloa), organ

Henry Purcell is the greatest English composer from the second half of the 17th century. He has also to be counted among the greatest composers of his time in Europe. As one critic said: He has never set a foot wrong in his compositions. Today his music is still widely admired, although - especially outside Great Britain - the interest in his oeuvre is a bit one-sided: his only opera Dido and Aeneas is regularly performed and recorded, as are his Funeral Sentences, his fantasias for viols and some of his anthems. But from his semi-operas only some songs are really familiar and that also goes for his Birthday Odes and Welcome Songs.

The latter are not often performed or recorded, and that may have everything to do with the fact that these are occasional works, whose texts are rather adulatory and therefore hard to swallow for an audience of today. As Andrew Pinnock points out in his liner-notes to the present disc, the poetry is also often rather poor. That makes it all the more admirable that Purcell managed to set these texts to such fine music. His contemporaries did notice bad poetry, but they did not care that much. The satirist Thomas Brown (1662-1704), wrote: "For where the Author's scanty words have failed, your happier Graces, Purcell, have prevailed". The Welcome Songs include great tunes, fit for a king. However, their general cheerfulness is a little deceiving, considering the fact that they were written in a time of political turbulence.

The two Welcome Odes included here are both written for James II, and he was the cause of most of the trouble, because of his Catholic leanings. These resulted in the Glorious Revolution, which brought the Dutch stadholder William of Orange, married to James' staunch Protestant daughter Mary, on the English throne. One of the pieces included here is connected to what preceded this event. In 1673 the Parliament passed a Test Act, which "enforced upon all persons filling any office, civil or military, the obligation of taking the oaths of supremacy and allegiance and subscribing to a declaration against transubstantiation and also of receiving the sacrament within three months after admittance to office" (Wikipedia). In 1687 James lifted the sanctions against people who refused to obey to the Test Act, through a Declaration of Indulgence. In 1688 he instructed Anglican clergy to read this Declaration from their pulpits. Seven prominent bishops refused and were put on trial. However, they were acquitted and released from the Tower of London. The catch True Englishmen drink a good health celebrates their release.

In Purcell's oeuvre we find a number of Birthday Odes and Welcome Songs. The latter celebrate the court's return to London after the summer holiday, usually spent at Windsor. Ye tuneful muses dates from 1686, and is scored for six solo voices, four-part tutti, two recorders, four-part strings and bc. The symphony which opens the work, shows the influence of the French style in Purcell's music. There is quite some text illustration in the ensuing sections for solo voices, mostly followed by a tutti episode. The solo 'In his just praise your noblest songs let fall' requires a bass with a tessitura of over two octaves. It may have been intended for Purcell's favourite bass John Gostling. Pinnock states that Purcell "stretched the texts' political credibility by overloading them with musical hyperbole." An example could be the ridiculously long notes on "co-lasting" in the last line of this solo section. Another specimen appears in 'Try, try, ev'ry strain': the strings play on all their open strings on the words "Tune all your strings". Obviously this Song includes a ground bass, here in the alto solo 'With him he brings the partner of his throne'.

Sound the trumpet, beat the drum was written the next year, 1687. The scoring is the same, but omits recorders. This Song not only celebrated the return of James, but also his birthday on 14 October. Considering the text, it is notable that no trumpets and drums were used. It is the voices and instruments which have to imitate their sound, and they do so convincingly. The duet 'Let Caesar and Urania live' for two altos - here sung by alto and tenor - is based on a ground of two bars, whereas the next duet, 'What greater bliss' for tenor and bass ends with a chaconne. The bass solo 'While Caesar, like the morning star' again requires a wide tessitura.

This disc is the first in a series devoted to music by Henry Purcell. Every volume will include one or two Welcome Songs. These will be surrounded by other pieces from several parts of Purcell's oeuvre. The present disc opens with one of his best-known instrumental works, the Chacony in g minor. This piece is often treated as chamber music, and performed with one instrument per part. Here the full string ensemble seems to be involved. The two harpsichord pieces represent one of the lesser-known parts of Purcell's oeuvre. The titles refer to the two parts of Great Britain which had become part of the kingdom in 1603, when Scotland's King James VI inherited the crowns of England and Ireland.

When on my sick bed I languish falls among the category of the devotional songs. They were not intended for liturgical use, but for performance in private surroundings. Whereas Purcell in his anthems only used texts from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer, these songs are settings of free poetry, by poets from his own time or from the past. In this case the author is Thomas Flatman (1635-1688). It is about a sick man facing the appearence of "cruel Death". The lamenting text is illustrated with descending figures and harmonic progressions of strong tension. It is scored for two tenors, bass and bc, and includes a poignant episode for the bass.

Save me, o God is a setting of verses from Psalm 54. It dates from around 1679 and is scored for six voices and bc. Although it is a full anthem it includes passages for solo voices; the second section (Hear my prayer) is a trio. God is gone up with a merry noise is a setting of Psalm 47, vs 5. It has the form of a canon for seven voices, "over in a flash and not likely to have taken Purcell very much longer to write", Pinnock writes. It takes just 1'07", but Purcell doesn't miss the opportunity to make the voices imitate the "sound of the trumpet", to which the text refers.

This disc is a promising start of an interesting series, which hopefully will include some of Purcell's lesser-known works. The singing is generally pretty good, even though some of the singers are not free of vibrato. It is mostly not very wide, and not very disturbing. I especially like the two sopranos, Kirsty Hopkins and Katy Hill, and the alto Daniel Collins. Stuart Young is sometimes a bit too pathetic. Harry Christophers, in his introduction to this disc, writes that his twelve strings are "not as many as Purcell had at his disposal". However, the line-up here is probably pretty much in accordance with the original forces. In the-liner notes to his complete recording of the Birthday Odes and Welcome Songs (Hyperion), Robert King states that "all but the largest of Purcell's Odes (...) seem to have been intended for performance by up to a dozen instrumentalists and a double quartet of singers, who between them covered all the solos and joined forces for the choruses". Overall I tend to prefer King's performances, especially because some of his singers, including the likes of James Bowman, Charles Daniels and Rogers Covey-Crump. However, the present disc has to be welcomed as a contribution to a wider acquaintance of Purcell's oeuvre.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

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The Sixteen

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