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Pelham HUMFREY (1647 - 1674): "Symphony Anthems"

Oxford Consort of Voices; Instruments of Time & Truth
Dir: Edward Higginbottom

rec: July 13 - 14, 2017, Vallerysthal (Moselle, F), Chapelle des Verriers
Pan Classics - PC 10388 ( 2018) (65'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

By the waters of Babylon; Haste thee O God; Hear my crying O God; Hear my prayer O God; Like as the hart; O Lord my God; The king shall rejoice

[OCV] Elizabeth Makharinsky, Maria Valdmaa, soprano; Tristram Cooke, alto; David Lee, Jonathan Hanley, tenor; Nicholas Mogg, bass
[ITT] Persephone Gibbs, Jean Paterson, violin; Rachl Byrt, viola; Gavin Kibble, viola da gamba; Edward Higginbottom, 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 one disc is 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. Since then only individual pieces have been included in anthologies, for instance a disc with sacred works by Purcell and Humfrey, recorded by Andrew Nethsingha, directing the Choir of St John's College Cambridge. Edward Higginbottom, in the liner-notes to the present recording, rightly states that "it is timely to re-assess the merits of Humfrey's church music, and notably his symphony anthems (...)".

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.

There can be no doubt that Humfrey's sojourns in France and Italy had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. Higginbottom argues that in particular his anthems show him "to be the country's leading composer of the early Restoration period, and one who articulated, perhaps for the first time in England, the idiom we now call Baroque."

The genre of the anthem - the Anglican equivalent of the Latin motet - exists in two varieties: the full anthem which is entirely scored for choir, and the verse anthem, which includes episodes for solo voices. All of Humfrey's anthems belong among the second category. They are usually called 'symphony anthems', because the scoring includes parts for strings. These never play together with the voices; the vocal episodes are only supported by the basso continuo. Every anthem opens with an instrumental introduction. The anthems are through-composed, but Humfrey inserts instrumental episodes to give structure to the piece. The use of instruments was a speciality of anthems written for the Chapel Royal. In most churches the voices were only accompanied by the organ. The use of instruments seems a token of French influence in Humfrey's oeuvre.

The fact that Humfrey was connected to the Chapel Royal explains why he composed anthems with instruments. Edward Higginbottom decided to perform these anthems with one voice per part, both vocally and instrumentally. This is inspired by the circumstances: the royal chapel at Whitehall measured only 75 x 30 feet (about 23 x 9 metres). But it also fits the character of the anthems: "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 line-up also allows for the characteristics of Humfrey's anthems to come off to the full. Among them is a declamatory treatment of the text and the use of harmony for expressive reasons. In the vocal parts, but also the instrumental introductions we regularly hear dissonances and chromaticism. These two features bear witness to the Italian influence in Humfrey's compostions and give reason to label him as a truly baroque composer.

All the anthems are settings of texts from the Book of Psalms. The king shall rejoice (Psalm 21, vs 1-7 & 13) may have been written at the occasion of the King's birthday. By the waters of Babylon (Psalm 137) is one of the most expressive anthems, obviously inspired by the text. Here we find a dramatic element: the anthem is scored for two tenors and bass, but when the enemies of the Jewish people in captivity are quoted - "Sing us one of the songs of Sion" - the upper voices come in. They return at the end: "Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones". A special case is O Lord my God, a setting of verses from Psalm 22. After the symphony the bass opens the proceedings. During the entire piece Humfrey juxtaposes the bass to alto and tenor. Could the prominence of the solo bass be inspired by the fact that Jesus quoted this Psalm at the Cross? Hear my crying O God is a setting of verses from Psalm 61 and includes some bold harmonic progressions.

There is no difference of opinion as far as the quality of Humfrey's anthems is concerned. That makes it rather odd that they are so seldom performed and recorded. If Higginbottom is correct in stating that these pieces are 'sacred chamber music', than his recording is more in line with the performance practice of Humfrey's time than McGegan, who used a choir. That said, considering that only small proportion of Humfrey's anthems are available on disc, it is a bit disappointing that the present disc includes only two anthems that are not in McGegan's recording: The king shall rejoice and Haste Thee O God. The former is included in "Coronation Music for Charles II", performed by Oltremontano and Psallentes, directed by Wim Becu. It is to be hoped that those anthems from Humfrey's pen which so far have not been recorded, will appear on disc in due course.

The performances offered here are pretty good, although not entirely satisfying. The singers are all suited to this repertoire; in particular the tenors are excellent. The sopranos and the bass sometimes use a little too much vibrato. In the case of the sopranos that does not matter that much, as their role is limited, but that is different as far as Nicholas Mogg is concerned. The alto parts are quite low; I wonder whether a high tenor, like the French haute-contre, would have been a better option. The players do a fine job; the harmonic peculiarities come off to the full.

Despite some reservations I strongly recommend this disc. Humfrey's anthems are quite impressive and Higginbottom and his colleagues are eloquent advocates of his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

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