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"Salvator Mundi - The Purcell Legacy"

St Salvator's Chapel Choir; Fitzwilliam String Quarteta; Sean Heathb, Tim Wilkinsonc, organa
Dir: Tim Wilkinson

rec: June 30 - July 1, 2014, Kilrenny Parish Church
Sanctiandree - SAND0001 ( 2015) (61'44")
Liner-notes: E/D/Jap; lyrics - translations: D/Jap
Cover & track-list

John BLOW (1648/49-1708): Salvator mundib; Voluntary in Cc; William BOYCE (1711-1779): O be joyful in the Lordb; Voluntary No. 9c; Jeremiah CLARKE (c1674-1707) I will love Thee, O Lord (He shall send down from on high to save me)b; Maurice GREENE (1696-1755): Thou, O God, art praised in Zion (Thou visitest the earth)b; George Friderick HANDEL (1685-1759) Fugue in B flat (HWV 607)c; Pelham HUMFREY (1647/48-1674): O Lord my God, why hast thou forsaken meab; William JACKSON (1730-1803): Hear me O Godabd; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): I will give thanks unto the Lord (Z 21)ab; Rejoice in the Lord alway (Z 49)ab

[FSQ] Lucy Russell, Marcus Barcham-Stevens, violin; Alan George, viola; Heather Tuach, cello
with: Ninian Perry, double bassd

It has been noted more than once that the sacred music written in England between the mid-17th and the end of the 18th century is not very well known and not often performed. That even goes for the anthems of Henry Purcell: only a handful are performed on a regular basis, for instance My heart is inditing. It is not so easy to sort out the reason for this relative neglect. There is certainly no lack of material; the present disc is inspired by and partly based on a large and interesting collection of 18th-century English music which was put together by the British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) which was purchased by the University of St Andrews library in 1966. It comprises around 700 volumes with printed scores and manuscripts. One would wish performers to explore such collections and look for interesting music which has remained unknown and unperformed rather than turning to the same music time and again. From that perspective this disc deserves a wholehearted welcome. Apart from the pieces by Purcell and Blow's Salvator mundi the programme is put together from little-known anthems by composers whose oeuvre is generally neglected, such as Humfrey, Greene and Jackson.

The booklet doesn't indicate which pieces are taken from the Finzi Collection; I assume it is only the last item in the programme, William Jackson's anthem Hear me, O God. One may regret that no more pieces from that source were chosen, but this programme has a specific objective. It wants to show the development of English sacred music from the mid-17th century to the last decades of the 18th century. That is especially interesting as the composers represented here are linked through a teacher-pupil relationship. In his liner-notes Tom Wilkinson writes: "[If] one excludes Handel, it is almost possible to trace a direct lineage from Humfrey to Jackson. The lineage is completed if one inserts Jackson's teacher, John Travers (c1703-1758), who was a pupil of Greene". As Travers has also composed a considerable number of anthems one wonders why none of these was included here; there was certainly enough space. There is another connection between the composers: with the exception of Jackson they were employed for some time by the Chapel Royal.

The programme opens with an anthem by Pelham Humfrey whose music is unjustly neglected. In New Grove Bruce Wood writes about him: "The most precocious of the brilliant first generation of choristers at the Chapel Royal after the Restoration, he spent the whole of his short adult life in its service. He had neither interest in nor aptitude for the old polyphonic style; instead he developed a distinctively English Baroque idiom, enriched by progressive French and Italian techniques, yet founded on the inflections of his native language, and far outstripping the experimental efforts of any earlier English composer both in consistency of approach and in technical fluency." Like Wood Tim Wilkinson underlines the Italian and French influences and mentions especially Humfrey's debt to Giacomo Carissimi, the famous composer of oratorios in Rome. On the other hand, Jeremy Summerly, in his liner-notes to the Chandos recording of the same anthem, O Lord my God, although not denying the aesthetic of the high baroque, refers to the "elements of the English Golden Age of yesteryear (...), however unwillingly or subconsciously". He mentions relicts of the viol consort practice from the early 17th century and the false relations which were part of English renaissance music. From these analyses rises a picture of a composer who mixed tradition and renewal. This is probably not surprising as in his time the baroque style had at last made its entrance to English musical life. This particular anthem is very expressive: just listen to the way Humfrey has set the first verse of the text for bass solo. In the booklet Samuel Pepys is quoted as criticizing one of Humfrey's anthems because "nothing is made of the words at all". That certainly doesn't go for this anthem.

John Blow - teacher and friend of Purcell - is another somewhat underrated composer. His Salvator mundi is one of his better-known pieces, and here the strong dissonants on the words "per crucem at sanguinem" (by thy cross and blood) are striking. It is one of a relatively small number of pieces on a Latin text and was probably intended for domestic use rather than the Anglican liturgy. From that perspective a choral performance may be less appropriate. The two anthems by Purcell are both verse anthems, meaning that they include episodes for solo voices. In particular Rejoice in the Lord alway is pretty well-known and includes some striking text expression, especially in the way Purcell treats the repeated words "rejoice (...) always". In I will give thanks unto the Lord the solo parts are confined to tenor and two basses; the accompaniment is for two violins and bc, without a viola.

Jeremiah Clarke is best-known for his organ music, especially his 'Trumpety Voluntary', but his oeuvre includes many anthems. 'He shall send down from on high to save me' is not an anthem; it is just the final chorus from his anthem I will love Thee, o Lord. That is not indicated in the track-list (corrected here in the header) but only mentioned in the liner-notes. It is a shame that this anthem was not recorded complete, especially as Clarke's vocal music is badly represented on disc. The same goes for Maurice Greene; he composed quite a number of anthems. Thou visitest the earth is again an extract from a larger piece (not indicated in the track-list and not mentioned in the liner-notes): Thou, O God, art praised in Zion (*). This piece reflects the more straightforward style of the mid-18th century. The ideal of 'naturalness' and simplicity in music comes also to the fore in William Boyce's anthem O be joyful in the Lord.

With William Jackson, known as 'Jackson of Exeter', we come to the classical style. This period in English music is even less explored than the music from the decades around 1700. With the exception of two years of study with John Travers in London he seems to have lived and worked his whole life in Exeter. Wilkinson suggests that the fact that in his oeuvre so little of Handel's influence shines through may be due to his geographical isolation. However, Handel's music was widely known and available in editions as well. It seems quite possible that he was an independent mind who deliberately developed an idiom of his own. Richard McGrady, in the article on Jackson in New Grove, also mentions some travels across Europe. Could he have picked up some of the current fashions on the continent in the process? Although from 1777 until his death he acted as sub-chanter, organist, lay-vicar and master of the choristers at Exeter Cathedral he seems to have left little sacred music; the main part of his output comprises secular songs which were very popular and can be found in many anthologies. Hear me, O God was published as his Op. 5 in 1766, together with an Ode on a text by Pope. It is a compilation of texts from Psalms 69, 71 and 31. Wilkinson suggests that these two pieces were intended for professional interpreters.

With this work a most interesting journey through the history of the English anthem comes to an end. It is not so easy immediately to assess the little-known pieces at their true value. I would like to hear more from composers like Clark, Greene and Jackson to judge whether their anthems are really worth being performed and recorded. Those who know Purcell's anthems will need some time to get used to the 'lighter' idiom of later composers. A disc like this should encourage other interpreters to look beyond the obvious.

The performances are sympathetic, but not satisfying in all respects. The choir has some nice voices in its ranks, but the solo episodes are rather uneven. Some are done pretty well - for instance the opening of Humfrey's anthem - but in others there is some insecurity and here and there a kind of nervous tremolo manifests itself. In Purcell's I will give thanks the solo voices don't blend all that well. In his Rejoice in the Lord alway there is too little expression; the word "rejoice" should have been given more emphasis. There are clear dynamic accents, but these are sometimes a bit unnatural. In Humfrey's O Lord my God I noted a low alto part which seems too low for a female or male alto. It seems better suited for a high tenor, the French hautecontre. However, the problem could be due to the pitch. In the notes to his recording of Purcell's anthems (Hyperion) Robert King mentions that in the Chapel Royal the pitch was high, probably at a=466'. That would largely solve the problem. The pitch used here is not mentioned.

Although this disc leaves something to be desired as far as the performances are concerned, it is well worth investigating, especially considering the rarity of a large part of the repertoire. Let us hope that more of the sacred music of this period will be performed and recorded. The Finzi collection seems a most fascinating source.

(*) A whole disc with anthems by Greene was recorded by the Choir of New College Oxford under Edward Higginbottom (CRD3484).

Johan van Veen ( 2016)

Relevant links:

St Salvator's Chapel Choir
Fitzwilliam String Quartet


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