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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Music for Queen Mary"

Edward Phillips, treblea; Kate Royal, sopranob; Joe Adamsc, David Allsopd, David Hansene, Tim Meadf, alto; Joe McMunng, Edward Saklatvalah, Andrew Staplesi, tenor; James Browningj, Jacques Imbrailok, Nick Morrisl, bass
Choir of King's College, Cambridge; The Academy of Ancient Music
Dir: Stephen Cleobury

rec: April 21 - 23, 2005, Cambridge, Chapel of King's College
EMI - 3 44438 2 ( 2006) (70'03")

Come, ye sons of Art (Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary, 1694) (Z 323)befk; In the midst of life (Z 17b)adgj; Love's goddess sure was blind (Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary, 1692) (Z 331)abefik; Man that is born of a woman (Z 27)adgj; Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (Z 860); Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem, verse anthem (Z 46)chl; Thou know'st, Lord, the secrets of our hearts (Z 58b)adgj; Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts (Z 58c)

As Henry Purcell was appointed Composer in Ordinary to the King's Musick in 1683 he had to write the music for state occasions. Among them were the birthdays of the King and the Queen. Between 1680 and 1694 he composed 17 ceremonial odes. Often he had to deal with mediocre texts, as the satirist Thomas Brown wrote: "For where the Author's scanty words have fail'd, Your happier Graces, Purcell, have prevail'd". This disc brings two Odes Purcell composed for the birthday of Queen Mary, which are contrasting in several ways.

The disc opens with Come, ye sons of Art, the last Birthday Ode Purcell composed. It shows the influence of the Italian style in Purcell's oeuvre. It is scored for a large orchestra of recorders, oboes, trumpets, drums, strings and bc. The Symphony follows the model of the Italian opera overture. The third (fast) movement is omitted here and replaced by the ritornello which leads to the first verse for alto solo. This Ode has become most famous for its duet 'Sound the trumpet', in which the two solo voices (altos) clearly imitate the sound of the trumpet. This is rather spoilt here by the stereotypical vibrato by both singers on every somewhat longer note. Positive is the use of ornaments, although I think they tend to exaggerate, and don't always sing the most appropriate ornaments. Italian in style is also the bass solo 'These are the sacred charms'. Jacques Imbrailo doesn't have a voice I find very attractive, but he uses it well and sings this verse quite expressively. One of the highlights of this disc is the fine performance by Kate Royal and the oboist Katharina Spreckelsen of the verse 'Bid the virtues', a splendid duet of voice and oboe.

The text of Love's goddess sure was blind is generally considered much better than the average texts Purcell had to use. This Ode dates from 1792 and is a more intimate work, which is reflected by the scoring of two recorders, strings and basso continuo. The style is predominantly French, starting with the overture in two sections: slow - fast. A short coda leads to the first ritornello and verse, 'Love's goddess sure was blind'. A remarkable verse is the soprano solo, 'May her blest example chase'. For the bass line Purcell has made use of the melody of the popular Scottish ballad tune 'Cold and Raw', which Queen Mary was very fond of. I don't need to repeat my comments of the contributions of the soloists here, as they are not different from those in the first Ode on the disc: the bass is alright, the altos are not very convincing here either. The verse 'Long may she reign' is sung here by a treble from the choir, for reasons I don't understand. It's not that Edward Phillips doesn't sing it well - on the contrary, but if the soprano soli are sung by an adult singer, why making an exception here?

The contribution of Edward Phillips also reflects the characteristics of the singing of the Choir of King's College. I find his voice a little too weak, in particular in the lower register. There is a clear difference here with the trebles from choirs like that of St John's College Cambridge, New College Oxford or St Paul's in London. This is a problem in particular in baroque music, which often contains solo passages and where articulation is important. This is one of the reasons the second item on this disc, the verse anthem Praises the Lord, O Jerusalem, isn't very convincing. Robert King, in his complete recording of Purcell's sacred works (Hyperion), delivers a much stronger performance. The same can be said about the funeral music which is also performed here.

In both Odes I find the choral contributions as a whole not strong enough, and the trebles are using more vibrato than usual. What is even more disappointing is the playing of the orchestra, which is uninspired and flat. And the drive one expects from a basso continuo group is mostly absent here.

There are certainly some nice moments on this disc, but on the whole I am pretty disappointed. This fine music can be performed much better.

Johan van Veen ( 2007)

Relevant links:

The Academy of Ancient Music
Choir of King's College, Cambridge


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