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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, Volume II"

The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers

rec: Kine 27 - 29, 2017, London, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn
Coro - COR16173 ( 2019) (72'27")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

From hardy climes and dangerous toils of war (Wedding Ode for Prince George and Princess Anne) (Z 325); From silent shades, and the Elysian groves (Bess of Bedlam) (Z 370); Hear my prayer, O Lord (Z 15); In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust (Z 16); Lord, how long with thou be angry (Z 25); O solitude, my sweetest choice (Z 406); Off all the instruments that are (Z 263); Pavan of four parts in g minor (Z 752); Plung'd in the confines of despair (Z 142); Welcome to all the pleasures (Ode for St Cecilia's Day) (Z 339)

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

As Henry Purcell was the most famous and most celebrated composer of his time in England, it was his duty to write the music for state events and for the monarchy. This resulted in a number of Odes or Songs for New Year or for birthdays. A few years ago Harry Christophers started a project which includes the recording of Purcell's complete output in this genre. Rather than confining himself to this kind of works, as Robert King did in his complete recording for Hyperion, Christophers mixes the Odes with other pieces from Purcell's oeuvre. So far two discs have been released. The project opened with 'Royal Welcome Songs for King James II' and the disc under review here is the second volume devoted to Welcome Songs for Charles II (the first has not come my way).

For those readers who are not acquainted with English history of the 17th century, it is useful to add some information about Charles II. "[He] was the eldest surviving child of Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland and Henrietta Maria of France. After Charles I's execution at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, at the climax of the English Civil War, the Parliament of Scotland proclaimed Charles II king on 5 February 1649. However, England entered the period known as the English Interregnum or the English Commonwealth, and the country was a de facto republic led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell defeated Charles II at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, and Charles fled to mainland Europe. Cromwell became virtual dictator of England, Scotland and Ireland. Charles spent the next nine years in exile in France, the Dutch Republic and the Spanish Netherlands. A political crisis that followed the death of Cromwell in 1658 resulted in the restoration of the monarchy, and Charles was invited to return to Britain. On 29 May 1660, his 30th birthday, he was received in London to public acclaim" (Wikipedia).

One wonders why this disc is presented as including welcome songs for Charles II, as neither of the two odes performed here are specifically written for him. Welcome to all the pleasures is an Ode for St Cecilia's Day, whereas From hardy climes was composed at the occasion of the marriage of Princess Anne, daughter of Charles's younger brother James, and Prince George of Denmark in 1683. It is true that all the pieces included here date from the time of Charles II's rule, but that is not the same.

In the course of history quite a number of compositions have been written in honour of St Cecilia, the patroness of music. According to tradition she was of aristocratic origin, and at a young age had been forced to marry someone from another aristocratic family in Rome. She was a Christian, and when her husband converted to Christianity, both died as martyrs around 230. This story is hard to prove, and even the very existence of St Cecilia has been questioned. It is also not quite clear for what reason she was associated with music. St Cecilia's Day was celebrated on 22 November. There are some differences of opinion in regard to the year that the celebration of St Cecilia's Day with a specially composed Ode started. Anthony Hicks, in the liner-notes to Robert King's recording of Handel's Ode for St Cecilia's Day (Hyperion, 2004), states that 1683 was the first year such a celebration took place, organised by 'The Musical Society'. This means that Welcome to all the pleasures was the first work written for such an occasion.

The text of this Ode was written by Christopher Fishburn, an amateur poet and composer; eight songs from his pen were included in Playford's Choice Ayres and Songs. The same publisher printed Purcell's Ode in 1684. The work opens with a symphony, and then a trio of two tenors and bass sings the first verse: "Welcome to all the pleasures that delight, of ev'ry sense, the grateful appetite". Then follows a song for alto over a ground bass: 'Here the deities approve'. It is one of Purcell's songs from a larger piece which are often performed separately. In the next section, 'While joys celestial - Then lift up your voices', trios alternate with tutti episodes. A tenor solo, 'Beauty, thou scene of love', leads to the concluding section, 'In a consort of voices', which opens with another tenor solo and ends with a tutti section. In comparison with Purcell's more famous Ode for St Cecilia's Day, Hail, bright Cecilia of 1694, this is a rather modest and intimate piece, whose instrumental scoring is confined to strings and basso continuo. The latter often end a section with a ritornello.

From hardy climes was written at the occasion of the marriage of Princess Anne and Prince George of Denmark, but it is not known whether it was performed at the day of the marriage, July 28, 1693. The author of the text is not known. Again, the instrumental ensemble comprises just strings and basso continuo, which at several times play a ritornello. They also open the work with a symphony. This is followed by a bass solo: "From hardy climes and dangerous toils of war (...), Hail! Welcome, Prince, to our benigner Isle". This leads to a chorus, followed by a ritornello. Next follow a solo for a high tenor and a duet for two sopranos. A solo for bass, chorus and ritornello is followed by another solo over a ground bass, this time for tenor, 'The sparrow and the gentle dove'. The last section - at least here, as in Robert King's recording it is split into two - opens with a trio for alto, tenor and bass, followed by a ritornello, which leads to a soprano solo; the work then closes with another chorus.

The rest of the programme includes specimens from other genres to which Purcell contributed. The sacred part of his output is represented with some of his anthems. Lord, how long wilt thou be angry dates from the early 1680s and is a mixture of old and new styles, manifesting themselves in imitative episodes and declamatory passages respectively. Hear my prayer, O Lord is a setting of the opening verse of Psalm 102. It again dates from the early 1680s, and it has been suggested that it is incomplete. The text is graphically illustrated through the use of chromaticism. The verse anthem In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust is from around 1682, and is a setting of verses from Psalm 71. The scoring is for three voices (alto, tenor and bass), choir, strings and basso continuo. In addition to trio sections, this work includes a duet and two solos for alto and bass respectively. As one expects from Purcell, there are several passages with chromaticism. The anthem opens with a symphony based on the same ground bass that Purcell used in his song O solitude.

No wonder, then, that this song is also included here. The text is part of a translation of La solitude by the French poet Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant (1594-1661). The translation was from the pen of Katherine Philips, an Anglo-Welsh translator and poet, who was highly regarded in her time. It comprises five stanzas of four and six lines respectively. Unfortunately, its structure is ignored in the booklet. The setting probably dates from around 1684/85. The ground bass is repeated 28 times. It is generally considered one of Purcell's masterpieces, with quite some text illustration and a differentiated use of harmony. From silent shades, also known as Bess of Bedlam, is a so-called mad song - a song which is put into the mouth of a mental patient. "Since Shakespeare's time the 'mental patients' confined to the Bethlem Royal Hospital (generally known as 'Bedlam') were for many of London's residents an attraction and macabre destination for Sunday excursions. Here a small entrance fee was charged for admission to the cells of the patients and for amusement at their supposed or real madness." (booklet to John Eccles, 'The Mad Lover'). The madness of Bess is illustrated by quick changes of metre.

Plung'd in the confines of despair is usually counted among the anthems, and as such it was included in Robert King's recording of Purcell's 'Complete anthems and services', but it represents a particular genre within his corpus of sacred music, known as 'devotional songs'. It is not quite clear what may have been Purcell's motivation to compose those songs. They were not intended for liturgical use: for his anthems Purcell used only texts from the Bible or from the Book of Common Prayer. Devotional songs are settings of free texts by poets from Purcell's own time or from the past. The song included here is a setting of a paraphrase of Psalm 130 by John Patrick, and taken from his Psalms of David, in metre of 1679. As most of the devotional songs are penitential and often turn "from contemplating man's sin to seeking or celebrating God's mercy" (Bruce Wood), this text fits well into the genre. This explains why Purcell frequently uses chromaticism and dissonants in his settings. He also makes use of eloquent musical figures to depict a text. That is not any different in Plung'd in the confines of despair.

Off all the instruments that are represents the probably least-known and least-frequently performed genres in Purcell's oeuvre: the catch. It is a canonic part-song in which voices enter one after another but have exactly the same music to sing. In the liner-notes, Andrew Pinnock writes: "Because catch clubs met informally, in pubs, note- perfect performances would have been unusual". Purcell composed almost 60 of such catches, but today they are almost completely ignored. They may also be much more fun to sing than to listen to. The catch included here does not whet my appetite for the genre.

Lastly, this disc offers one of Purcell's separate instrumental pieces. Like the fantasias for viols, the Pavan of four parts in g minor is an impressive example of Purcell's mastery of counterpoint.

I was rather pleased by the first disc from this series, including Welcome Songs for James II. Unfortunately I am not with the present disc. In my review of the first volume, I noted the vibrato of some of the singers. I didn't find it very disturbing. Although I regret it, it is not that problematic in the solos here as well, but it especially damages the ensembles, and in particular Hear my prayer, O Lord seriously suffers from it. It also makes itself unpleasantly felt in Plung'd in the confines of despair.

However, my main problem with this disc is that a number of pieces suffer from too much restraint and some feeble singing and playing. Overall, the performances are dynamically rather flat and undifferentiated. The strings don't need to play in the way of the Ensemble Diderot, for instance in its performance of Purcell's trio sonatas, but this is too much in the other direction. It needs some doing to make me feel bored by a piece like the Pavan in g minor. Katy Hill has a nice voice, but the expression of O Solitude never really comes off. Kirsty Hopkins is too harmless and not dramatic enough in From silent shades. From hardy climes receives the best performance as far as the Welcome songs are concerned; in comparison Welcome to all the pleasures does not live up to the expectations.

Let's hope that next volumes will be better.

Johan van Veen ( 2019)

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