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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): Chamber Music

[I] "Chamber music for up to four parts"
Dir: Daniel Deuter

rec: Jan 18 - 21, 2009, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
PanClassics - PC 10227 (© 2009) (75'49")

[II] Ten Sonatas in Four Parts
Retrospect Trio

rec: June 3 - 6, 2008, East Woodhay, Berkshire, St Martin's Church
Linn Records - CKD 332 (© 2009) (56'51")

[I] A Ground in Gamut (in G) (Z 745); Chacony in g minor (Z 730); Fantasia II a 3 in F (Z 733); Fantasia III a 3 in G (Z 734); Pavan for 2 violins and bc in a minor (Z 749); Pavan for 2 violins and bc in g minor (Z 751); Pavan for 3 violins and bc in g minor (Z 752); Sonata VI in C (Z 795) [1]; Sonata VII in e minor (Z 796) [1]; Sonata IV in d minor (Z 805) [3]; Sonata V in g minor (Z 806) [3]; Suite in G (Z 770); Suite No 7 in d minor (Z 668) [2]; Three parts upon a Ground (Z 731); Ye Tuneful Muses (Z 344): prelude and ground in c minor

[II] Sonata I in b minor (Z 802) [3]; Sonata II in E flat (Z 803) [3]; Sonata III in a minor (Z 804) [3]; Sonata IV in d minor (Z 805) [3]; Sonata V in g minor (Z 806) [3]; Sonata VI in g minor (Z 807) [3]; Sonata VII in C (Z 808) [3]; Sonata VIII in g minor (Z 809) [3]; Sonata IX in F (Z 810) [3]; Sonata X in D (Z 811) [3]

(Sources: [1] Sonnata’s of III. Parts, 1683; [2] A Choice Collection of Lessons, 1696; [3] Ten Sonata’s in Four Parts, 1697

[I] Daniel Deuter, Margret Baumgartl, violin, viola; Fiona Stevens, violin; Frauke Hess, viola da gamba; Johanna Seitz, triple harp; Markus Märkl, harpsichord, organ
[II] Sophie Gent, Matthew Truscott, violin; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Matthew Halls, harpsichord, organ

Henry Purcell lived in a time of change in musical taste. That was partly due to Charles II who had been in exile in Paris, and there had fallen in love with French music. When he returned to England after the restoration of the monarchy he took measures to introduce the French style in England. To that end he expanded The King's Violinists which had been established before the Civil War, from 15 to 24, after the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy of Louis XIV. He especially detested the traditional English style with its music for viol consort, dominated by polyphony. He rather preferred dance music, played by violins with support of a basso continuo.

This preference didn't go down that well in England. Henry Purcell didn't think highly of French music which he characterised with the terms "levity" and "balladry". He preferred the "seriousness and gravity" of Italian music. Although the French style has left its mark in Purcell's oeuvre, the largest part of his music for instrumental ensemble reflects the Italian taste rather than the French. And even in his music which was probably written for the Twenty-four Violins of the King he doesn't turn his back on polyphony which was very much part of his style of composing. Only one collection of instrumental music was printed during Purcell's lifetime, and these 12 Sonnata's of III. Parts of 1683 were dedicated to Charles II. One wonders if Purcell wanted to give a message with this dedication, and what Charles thought about these sonatas.

The change in aesthetics also had its influence on the scoring. The violin was not unknown in England, and in the second half of the 17th century some violin virtuosos from abroad, among them Nicola Matteis, had made their appearance, but music for the violin written by English composers was still rather rare. With the violin the Italian style also made its entry in England. In the foreword of his first collection of sonatas Purcell explained to the users some of the features of the Italian style as well as the meaning of Italian terms, like 'presto', 'largo' and 'vivace'. In this and the next collection of sonatas Purcell was an innovator in various respects: firstly in the scoring for violins, secondly in the integration of Italian and traditional English elements, and thirdly in the abundant use of dissonants.

The German ensemble CordArte has recorded a kind of survey of Purcell's instrumental music, which gives an excellent insight into the various features of Purcell's instrumental writing. It contains sonatas from both collections, some of his fantasias for viols - the two upper parts played on violin and viola - and some pavans which also are rooted in the tradition. The instrumental pieces are interspersed by some harpsichord works. The ensemble delivers very fine and compelling performances. The transparency of its sound allows the harmonic peculiarities and sometimes striking dissonances to come to the fore. CordArte mostly plays Italian and German music, and here the sometimes rigid articulation and large dynamic contrasts are more appropriate than in Purcell. That is the case, for instance, in the Suite in G. In a number of pieces the harp is participating in the basso continuo. I am not sure about the role of the harp in Purcell's music, though. It also plays with the harpsichord in the Ground in Gamut for keyboard. A bit odd is the last movement from the Suite in d minor, where an episode is first played at the harpsichord and then repeated by the strings. But in general this disc is a very fine contribution to the Purcell discography.

The Retrospect Trio has devoted what seems to be its first disc to the entire second collection of sonatas. It was printed in 1697, two years after Purcell's death, with a foreword by his widow. It seems likely that these sonatas have been written not long after the printing of the first collection. The number of movements strongly varies, from four (Sonata I) to seven (Sonata V) movements. An exception is the Sonata VI in g minor which comprises a single movement with the tempo indication 'adagio', although some differentiation is created by the various sections. It is one of the most expressive sonatas from the set, and reflects the various features mentioned above. I referred to Purcell's use of dissonants. This whole collection bears witness to his bold and daring treatment of harmony. Some striking examples are the opening adagio of the Sonata VIII in g minor and the closing adagio of the Sonata V in g minor. Probably most shocking is the opening adagio of the Sonata IV in d minor. The opening movement - without tempo indication - of the Sonata V contains some eloquent sighing figures, and so does the adagio from the Sonata IX in F. The fast movements show Purcell's skills in counterpoint, and it is here that he links up with the tradition as reflected in the English consort music.

The Retrospect Trio couldn't have made a better debut on disc as with this recording. All features of Purcell's sonatas are fully exposed, the harmonic boldness comes clearly to the fore, thanks to the immaculate intonation. The performance is engaging and energetic, and the ensemble's dynamic gradation makes these performances all the more exciting and compelling. Right now I can't imagine a better performance. I hope that these artists are going to record the first set as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Retrospect Ensemble

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