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Pelham HUMFREY (1647/48 - 1674): "Sacred Choral Music"

Alexander Chance, alto; Nicholas Mulroy, Nick Pritchard, tenor; Ashley Riches, bass
The Choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, St James's Palace; instrumental ensemble
Dir: Joseph McHardy

rec: Jan 27 - 29, 2020, London, HM Chapel Royal, St James's Palace
Delphian Records - DCD34237 ( 2021) (59'02")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list
Spotify

By the waters of Babylon; O give thanks unto the Lord; O Lord my God; Service in e minor

Bojan Cicic, Elin White, violin; Jane Rogers, viola; Sarah McMahon, cello; Alex McCartney, theorbo; Martyn Noble, Joseph McHardy, organ

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the sacred music from the Restoration period in English music history is not very well known and rather poorly represented on disc. It is true, Henry Purcell is a household name, which often appears on disc and in concert programmes. However, only a small proportion of his sacred output is really well-known. Most of his colleagues have fared even worse: few of John Blow's anthems are available on disc, and the same goes for Pelham Humfrey. As far as I know only two discs are entirely devoted to his anthems. In 1992 Harmonia mundi released a disc with nine anthems, performed by soloists, the Choir of Clare College Cambridge and the ensemble Romanesca, under the direction of Nicholas McGegan. The second disc dates from 2018: Edward Higginbottom directed the Oxford Consort of Voices and the ensemble Instruments of Time & Truth in seven anthems. Unfortunately the latter includes only two anthems that are not in McGegan's recording. The present disc offers no anthems that have not been recorded before, but the Service in e minor is a substantial addition to the catalogue. That is to say: it is recorded here complete. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis were recorded by the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, under the direction of Andrew Nethsingha, in a programme of pieces by Humfrey and Purcell. The anthem O Lord my God is also part of that recording. However, I think that Higginbottom's remark, in the booklet to his recording, that "it is timely to re-assess the merits of Humfrey's church music, and notably his symphony anthems (...)" still stands.

Let's first turn to some biographical data. Neither the exact year nor the place of Humfrey's birth are known. By the end of 1660 he was a chorister in the Chapel Royal. His talent for composing came to light very early; his first anthem, Have mercy upon me, O God, dates from 1663. His development in this capacity came to a temporary halt, when Charles II sent him on a mission to the continent, probably as a spy. From the end of 1664 until the Autumn of 1667 he was in France and Italy. After his return he became Gentleman in the Chapel Royal, and in 1672 he was appointed Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. That same year he was given the position of composer to the King's band of violins. What could be expected to become an impressive career was cut short in 1674, when he died at the age of 27.

The fact that he died so young, explains why his oeuvre is not that large: around twenty liturgical works (some are of doubtful authenticity), five devotional songs, 23 secular songs, three court odes and two masks. That puts the complaints about a lack of recordings a little in perspective: there is not that much to choose from.

In the liner-notes to Higginbottom's recording and those in the booklet to the present disc the influence of continental music in Humfrey's oeuvre is emphasized. However, the performances are quite different. Higginbottom approaches the anthems as vocal chamber music. "We are in the world of sacred chamber music, where the scoring is predominantly for solo voices (marked 'vers' in the sources). The few singers required would not have been smothered by the strings, also routinely reduced to single players, and never playing at the same time as the voices except where the instrumental scoring contracted to solo violin only." The starting point is the same: the two conductors take the circumstances in Whitehall Chapel (which does not exist anymore) into account, but Joseph McHardy uses the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, in the tutti episodes. The verses - episodes for solo voice(s) - are performed here by solo singers who are not part of the choir. McHardy even goes so far as to split them logistically: "[We] used [the chapel's] geography to imagine an antiphonal approach in which strings, choir, and soloists formed distinct 'choirs' who dialogue with each other (...)". One wonders whether there are any historical reasons for that. In particular the split between choir and solo voices is a rather unlucky one, I feel. If the verses had been sung by members of the choir, these passages would have been more integrated into the whole.

In particular the Italian influence is given emphasis here, and as a result the contributions of the soloists are quite theatrical, more than in Higginbottom's recording. That goes especially for By the waters of Babylon and O Lord my God. That can be explained by these anthems's content. The former is a setting of verses from Psalm 137, about the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylon. In the latter Humfrey sets verses from Psalm 22, and here the bass plays a substantial role, whereas the other voices usually sing in ensemble. Could the prominence of the solo bass be inspired by the fact that Jesus quoted this Psalm at the Cross?

In the Service in e minor we do not find much text expression, as these liturgical texts don't give much opportunity to that. The exceptions are some verses in the Magnificat.

This recording offers an interpretation which is certainly interesting, and an alternative to previous recordings. Given the few number of recordings of Humfrey's oeuvre any disc devoted to his music is welcome. That said, I am not really satisfied with the performances. The choir sings well, although the upper voices are a bit hard-edged, in particular in forte passages. The contributions of the soloists are rather inconsistent. The pretty wide vibrato of in particular Nick Pritchard and Ashley Riches is hard to swallow and damages the ensemble. That is especially the case in the two first anthems. O Lord my God comes off better. In order to pay tribute to the French traces in Humfrey's music, a number of parts designed for alto are performed by one of the tenors as haute-contre. That is an interesting idea, also applied by Robert King in some of his recordings of Purcell's anthems. However, here and there I noted quite some stress in these episodes; the top notes don't always sound very comfortable.

On balance, because of its interpretational concept this disc is an interesting contribution to the discography of English sacred music of the Restoration period, but musically I am a little disappointed.

Johan van Veen ( 2023)

Relevant links:

Alexander Chance
Nicholas Mulroy
Nick Pritchard
Ashley Riches


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