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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): "Anthems"

James Bowman, alto; Nigel Rogers, tenor; Max van Egmond, baritone
The Choir of King's College, Cambridge; Leonhardt-Consort
Dir: Gustav Leonhardt

rec: June & July 1969, Bennebroek
Teldec - 2564 68699-2 (R) ( 2009) (50'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations

Blow up the trumpet (Z 10); Chacony in g minor (Z 730); My heart is inditing (Z 30); O God, thou art my God (Z 35); O God, thou hast cast us out (Z 36); Rejoice in the Lord alway (Z 49); Remember not, Lord, my offences (Z 50)

Marie Leonhardt, Antoinette van den Hombergh, violin; Wim ten Have, Lodewijk de Boer, viola; Dijck Koster, cello; Fred Nijenhuis, violone; Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord, organ

For me this disc is something special. I purchased the first release on vinyl in the early 1970s, and it was the very first Purcell disc I owned. I have played it many times, and as a result the pieces by Purcell recorded here have become my personal favourites. So I was pleased to see this recording being reissued and to have the opportunity to listen to it again after many years of not having heard it.

The programme opens with what in my view is one of Purcell's most beautiful pieces, on an equally beautiful text. It is from St Paul's letter to the Philippians: "Rejoice in the Lord alway and again I say rejoice". This phrase is effectively set by Purcell, and emphasized through several repetitions. The anthem begins with a sinfonia for strings and basso continuo. The Leonhardt-Consort shines in the subtle dynamic shading, and we also hear the great sense of rhythm for which Gustav Leonhardt is particularly famous.
Only two sections are written for the tutti, all other sections are given to the three solo voices. It is very nice to hear three pioneers of early music singing in excellent form here, delivering such a fine expression of the text. A particularly good example is the subtle performance of the closing phrase: "through Jesus Christ our Lord". After that the first section is repeated.

Blow up the trumpet is another great specimen of Purcell's art of translating a text into music. The rhythm of the opening section is an eloquent depiction of the blowing of trumpets. Dynamically the performance is a bit too modest. That is much better in the closing phrase: "where is their God?"

O God, thou art my God is an anthem in which we also hear trebles as soloists. In this performance the treble parts are sung by more than one singer. That is not ideal, but here it works quite well, because the singing is good and well synchronized. Notable here is the special treatment of the words "in a barren and dry land".

O God, thou hast cast us out gives much attention to the opening words "O God". The largest part of this anthem is given to the choir. Its sound is polished and powerful. That is no surprise as the Choir of King's College was particularly good under the direction of David Willcocks. There is no wide vibrato in the lower male voices as I have noticed often in later recordings. I also think the trebles are more powerful and less 'angelic' than they have sometimes been in the post-Willcocks era. Because of these features the tutti are coming off really well on this disc.

The choir also shines in My heart is inditing, one of Purcell's most famous compositions. In the second section, "At his right hand shall stand the queen" it is powerful but also rhythmically flexible. The fourth section, "With joy and gladness" is given a fine dynamic climax on the words "and shall enter into the King's palace". After this the opening sinfonia is repeated, which is beautifully played, but perhaps a shade too slow. In this anthem the solo sections are sung by members of the choir rather than the three soloists. I don't know why, but the singers - who are not mentioned - are executing their parts perfectly. The last section, "For kings shall be" is again notable for its dynamic shading, and the anthem ends with a powerful and jubilant "Alleluja".

It is remarkable that the disc doesn't end with this anthem, but rather with a prayer, Remember not, Lord, our offences, a piece for voices without any accompaniment. It is strongly rooted in tradition and shows how much Purcell mastered the polyphony of the past. It is a moving piece getting a highly expressive performance here which once again underlines the qualities of the Choir of King's College under Willcocks' direction.

It was a pleasant experience to hear this recording again. Much has happened since it was first released, and in particular the strings are a bit thin and less polished than those we are used to today. But I have still very much enjoyed their playing - not only in the anthems but also in the Chacony in g minor -, in particular the subtle treatment of dynamics and excellent exploration of Purcell's rhythms. And as the choir and the three soloists are in such fine form I think this disc isn't just worthwhile for historic reasons. It can also be enjoyed for purely musical reasons, and the programme is a good introduction to the sacred music of Purcell.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

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