musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Music for the Coronation of King James II, 1685"

The Choir of the Chapel Royal, The Musicians Extra-Ordinary
Dir: Andrew Gant
rec: July 23 - 25, 2006, London, Chapel Royal, St James's Palace
Signum Classics - SIGCD094 ( 2007) (70'11")

John Blow (1649-1708): Behold, O God our defender; God spake sometimes in visions; Let thy hand be strengthened; William Child (1606-1697): O Lord, grant the King a long life; Henry Lawes (1596-1662): Zadok, the Priest; Henry Purcell (1659-1695): I was glad (Z 19); My heart is inditing (Z 30); Thomas Tallis (1505-1585): Litany (extr); William Turner (1651-1740): Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire; The King shall rejoice

Ivo Almond, Daniel Barber, Orlando Byron, Oliver Fincham, Jack Fonseca, Joseph Jackson, Daniel Mair, Alexander May, Edmund Phillips, Alan Ross, treble; James Bowman, David Gould, Michael McGuire, alto; Jerome Finnis, Andrew Tortise, tenor; Maciek O'Shea, Angus Wilson, bass; Richard Thomas, Jeremy West, cornett; Adrian France, sackbut; Catherine Martin, Hannah Tibbell, violin; Wiebke Thormahlen, viola; Joseph Crouch, cello; Joseph Nolan, organ

Many composers of the 17th and 18th centuries wrote music for special occasions. These works are mostly performed as isolated pieces, without their proper context. That is understandable, as many of the elements of a certain ceremony can hardly be reconstructed. And often we just don't know enough about the elements of a ceremony and the particular compositions which were part of it. But sometimes we are lucky: people attending ceremonies were making notes and if they were especially interested in music these notes can give some clues as to which music was performed and even how. This disc attempts to reconstruct the ceremony of the coronation of James II in 1685.

The reconstruction is mainly based on a book by Francis Sandford, who attended the Coronation in his capacity as Lancaster Herald. He gives a detailed account of the preparations and the ceremony, which was printed in a large number of copies. Unfortunately for him James' Catholic leanings led to his downfall, and as nobody wanted to be associated with James Sandford's book didn't sell that well. But to us it gives interesting information about the music performed, even though Sandford's information isn't always correct and sometimes rather confusing. And there are also gaps in the information which means creative solutions are required.

Not every piece which was performed during the ceremony was composed specifically for the occasion, like William Child's anthem O Lord, grant the King a long life, which opens the disc. The next anthem is Purcell's I was glad>, but here the performer has two choices: Purcell wrote a verse anthem and also a full anthem which was formerly attributed to John Blow and only later believed to be written by Purcell. Robert King, in the programme notes to his recording of Purcell's sacred music (Hyperion), thinks the latter version was the one performed during the coronation ceremony, considering Sandford refers to a full anthem. But for several reasons Andrew Gant thinks it is more likely the verse anthem was performed. In this respect he states that Sandford's descriptions are not always reliable and contain several provable errors.

There is no reference as to what music the Litany was sung, but Gant thinks Tallis's setting is the most likely possibility, so here a number of verses from his setting are performed. According to Sandford the hymn was sung to a setting by William Turner, but no setting by him exists, so this remark is interpreted as referring to a chant, of which Turner composed several. Henry Lawes's anthem Zadok the Priest, written for the coronation of Charles II in 1661, is incomplete: only the bass part of the instrumental symphony has been preserved, and Andrew Gant has added instrumental parts of his own.
William Turner's anthem The King shall rejoice is a setting he wrote for the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702. It is used here since Turner's setting for the coronation of 1685 is lost. Andrew Gant suggests the setting of 1702 is an arrangement of the one of 1685. True or not, this is an example of the creativity which is necessary to realise a reconstruction like this. In the case of William Child's Te Deum the performer has again to make a choice from the several settings which have come down to us.

The pieces by Blow and Purcell which conclude this disc - God spake sometime in visions and My heart is inditing respectively - are among the best-known works by their respective composers, and they are specifically mentioned by Sandford. These and Purcell's verse anthem I was glad have been recorded before, of course, but most other pieces on this disc are probably first recordings. Even if some of them were recorded before, their performance here as part of this reconstruction makes them a welcome addition to the catalogue anyway.

As I find this concept very interesting and illuminating and also worked out very well, I had liked to be more positive about the actual performance, but I'm afraid I can't. One really needs a certain amount of tolerance to listen to this disc.
The Choir of the Chapel Royal doesn't belong to the best in Britain. I find the sound of the trebles unpleasantly sharp, and the voices don't blend very well either. When the trebles are singing with the men two altos (with a third in both pieces by Child), two tenors and two basses, called Gentlemen-in-Ordinary in the booklet the blending is even further off. The men are also singing the solo parts, and the trio of James Bowman, Andrew Tortise and Maciek O'Shea in Purcell's I was glad is particularly unsatisfying, as Bowman hardly uses any vibrato, but the two others use quite a lot of it.

There are some intonation problems in the choir's treble section in Blow's anthem God spake sometime in visions and in William Child's Te Deum voices and instruments don't always synchronise. I have also heard Purcell's anthem My heart is inditing a lot better than here: the symphony which opens the piece is rather lacklustre and flat. The instrumental ensemble is very small in comparison to the number of players involved in the ceremony in 1685. In his programme notes to the recording of anthems by Blow (Winchester Cathedral Choir and The Parley of Instruments - Hyperion) Peter Holman writes that the anthem God spake sometime in visions "was performed with large forces, including the complete Twenty-four Violins" (the royal string orchestra). That is quite a difference with the ensemble on this disc, consisting of just two violins, one viola, cello and organ (with two cornetts and sackbut).

The only reason to buy this disc is the opportunity to hear the music in the context it was written for. Musically the result of this reconstruction is rather disappointing.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

CD Reviews