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Henry PURCELL (1659 - 1695): Odes and Welcome Songs

[I] "Royal Odes"
The King's Consort
Dir: Robert King
rec: Sept 30 - Oct 2, 2020, Craydon, Fairfield Halls
Vivat - 121 (© 2021) (81'12")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Now does the glorious day appear (Z 332); Welcome, welcome, glorious morn (Z 338); Why, why are all the Muses mute? (Z 343)

Carolyn Sampson, Emily Owen, Lisa Beckley, Gwendolen Martin, soprano; Iestyn Davies, Hugh Cutting, alto; Charles Daniels, David de Winter, tenor; Matthew Brook, Edward Grint, bass
Frances Norbury, Mark Baigent, oboe; Neil Brough, John Hutchins, trumpet; Kati Debretzeni, Huw Daniel, violin; Dorothea Vogel, Rose Redgrave, viola; Sarah McMahon, Timothy Smedley, bass violin; Lynda Sayce, theorbo; Mark Williams, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, Volume III"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: Feb 5 - 7, 2018, London, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn
Coro - COR16182 (© 2020) (74'05")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Blow, Boreas, blow (Z 589); Close thine eyes and sleep secure (Upon a quiet conscience) (Z 184); Come, my hearts, play your parts (Z 246); Dioclesian (Z 627) (Chaconne Two in one upon a ground); From those serene and rapturous joys (Z 326); O all ye people, clap your hands (Z 138); O praise the Lord, all ye heathen (Z 43); Overture in d minor (Z 771); Rejoice in the Lord alway (Z 49); Retir'd from any mortal's sight (Z 581); Thy genius, lo! (Z 604); What shall be done in behalf of the man? (Z 341)

Kary Hill, Kirsty Hopkins, soprano; Daniel Collins, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Stuart Young, bass
Rebecca Miles, Ian Wilson, recorder; Sarah Sexton, Sarah Moffatt, Sophie Barber, Daniel Edgar, Jean Paterson, Ellen O'Dell, violin; Martin Kelly, Stefanie Heichelheim, Jane Norman, viola; Joseph Crouch, Imogen Seth-Smith, Gavin Kibble, cello; Frances Kelly, harp; David Miller, theorbo; Alastair Ross, harpsichord, organ


It was part of the duties of many composers of the baroque era to write occasional music, for instance for births and marriages, and for birth- and namedays. If they were composers of renown, private persons may also engage them to write music, for instance for a wedding (anniversary). In Italy, the serenata was a popular form of occasional music. The Odes and Welcome Songs that Henry Purcell wrote for English monarchs could be compared with such works. What they had in common is that the lyrics were mostly rather mediocre in quality, or even worse. It attests to the skills of a composer when he was able to set them to music of good quality, which is still worth being performed. Purcell is one of the best examples of such a composer. That was also expressed by the satirist Thomas Brown, who wrote: "For where the Author's scanty words have failed, Your happier Graces, Purcell, have prevail'd".

Purcell experienced three monarchs during his life. The first was Charles II, who ascended the throne, when in 1660 the monarchy was restored. There may have been some hope for peace and quiet, after the turbulences of the first half of the century. That materialized in the first ten years or so of his reign, but after that he increasingly lost his interest in state affairs and spent much time out of London. He had no (legitimate) children, and because of that his heir was his younger brother James. He was probably the greater talent in politics, but he was a staunch Catholic, and that did not go down very well with the large majority of the people, which belonged to the Church of England. It was also formally problematic, as the King was head of the Anglican Church. In 1685 James succeeded Charles, but his reign did not last long. In 1688 he was removed during the Glorious Revolution, and was succeeded by his daughter Mary, who was married to the Dutch stadtholder William III. She was problably the only of the three monarchs that was truly loved by the people. The reactions to her death in 1695 bore witness to that.

It was Purcell who composed the music for her funeral. It was the last music he wrote for an English monarch, as only a little time afterwards he died himself. The funeral music was the last work in a long list of compositions for the monarchy. They consist of birthday odes as well as welcome songs. The latter is a special category, which is unique for England. Each year the monarchs spent some time outside London, for instance at Windsor during the summer holidays. When they returned to Whitehall, the centre of government in London, a Welcome Song was performed. The first disc to be reviewed here opens with one of such works.

Why, why are all the Muses mute is the first Welcome Song Purcell wrote for James II. It was performed on 14 October 1685 at Whitehall. It refers to a failed attempt to overthrow the King, the so-called Monmouth Rebellion. The Duke of Monmouth, living in self-imposed exile in the Dutch Republic, landed in June 1685 in England and collected an army which was defeated the next month. The work begins with a solo for tenor, whose text expresses the state of the time: "Why are all the muses mute? Why sleeps the viol and the lute?" This leads to a chorus: "Awake, 'tis Caesar does inspire and animates the vocal quire [choir]". Then we hear the usual symphony in French style. The solo for alto, 'Britain, thou now art great', is based on a ground (the English term for a basso ostinato). The bass solo 'Accursed rebellion reared his head' is a belligerent piece and technically demanding, as its range spans more than two octaves. It seems likely that this was sung by the brilliant bass James Gostling. The work ends with an extended solo for alto, 'O how blest is the isle to which Caesar is given', which turns into the chorus.

Now does the glorious day appear was Purcell's first Ode written to celebrate the birthday of Queen Mary, on 30 April 1689. The text is from the pen of Thomas Shadwell, an English poet and playwright who was appointed Poet Laureate in that same year. However, Purcell altered the text considerably. The fact that this is the first birthday ode, explains why the text refers to the recent events that had resulted in Mary's accession to the throne. The bass duet says that the "trembling Papal world (...) must bend himself to her [Mary's] victorious charms". And in the next trio, the text says that "[our] dear religion, with our law's defence, to God her zeal, to man benevolence, must her above all former monarchs raise to be her everlasting theme of praise". The instrumental scoring is for strings and basso continuo, but it is notable that the string body is in five rather than four parts, as Purcell added a third violin - actually a small viola, as Robert King states in his liner-notes. The opening symphony, with its dotted rhythms, attests to the influence of the French style in Purcell's oeuvre. Another returning feature is the use of a ground bass. In the solo for tenor 'This does our fertile isle' the ground bass is just two notes. In contrast, 'By beauteous softness' for alto the ground bass comprises four bars.

Two years later, in 1691, Purcell wrote another birthday ode, Welcome, welcome, glorious morn; the author of the text is not known. It is a more exuberant work: the instrumental ensemble includes pairs of oboes and trumpets. The latter manifest themselves in the opening symphony. As in all Odes and Welcome songs Purcell mixes solos and tutti, and sometimes also instrumental ritornellos. The tutti often repeat the last section of the solo episode. Notable in this Ode are the ensembles: three duets (TB/AB/BB) and one trio. There are also some recitativic passages. The bass solo 'And lo! the sacred fury swelled her breast' is based on a ground bass of six bars. The penultimate solo is for high tenor, which is followed by a tenor solo, which leads into the closing chorus.

In the 1980s and 90s Robert King recorded the complete Odes and Welcome songs for Hyperion. Those were ground-breaking, as at the time these pieces were - with some exceptions - hardly known. One may wonder how much has changed since then. Over the years only a few times I have encountered a recording of such works, and mostly it was a performance of one of the better-known, in particular birthday odes for Queen Mary. The others are still largely unknown, certainly to audiences outside Britain. That is a real shame, as the texts may be of mediocre quality, but Purcell's music most certainly is not. One can only admire his skills in writing such excellent music on such texts. Purcell was one of those composers, who just could not put a foot wrong. The three Odes performed here are superb specimens of his art.

In his notes on the performance, King refers to his past recordings, and mentions the differences between then and now. One aspect is that in the earlier recordings the instrumental ensemble included a cello and a double bass. The cello was hardly known at the time in England, and Purcell never used a double bass. In this recording the basso continuo includes a bass violin instead, which was the most common string bass at the time, alongside the viola da gamba. There has also been an evolution in the style of singing, but not necessarily for the better. The present recording is not entirely satisfying, in comparison with the Hyperion recordings. At that time King had some of the finest singers at his disposal, such as James Bowman, Rogers Covey-Crump, Charles Daniels, Evelyn Tubb and Rufus Müller, to name just a few. Charles Daniels is again present here, and he is one of the stars of the show. There are also excellent contributions from Iestyn Davies and David de Winter. Edward Grint is problematic: he is often a bit too pathetic and uses way too much vibrato. Carolyn Sampson does the same, and as a result 'My prayers are heard' (Welcome, welcome, glorious morn) is disappointing. The vibrato in some of the voices also damages the ensembles.

The Hyperion recordings are not better in every respect, and the positive developments in instruments and playing techniques that manifest themselves here, deserve applause. However, the considerable weaknesses and in particular the lack of consistency in the vocal department does withhold me from unequivocally recommending this recording.

Some years ago Harry Christophers, with his ensemble The Sixteen, started a series of recordings of Odes and Welcome Songs, which are embedded in programmes of music which aim at showing the variety of Purcell's oeuvre. In addition to the occasional works, we hear anthems, sacred pieces for domestic performances, single songs, catches and instrumental works. So far, three volumes have been released. The first was devoted to music for James II, whereas the two next recordings included music connected to Charles II, as does the disc under review here.

The two main works are Welcome Songs. What shall be done in behalf of the man?, written in 1682, is a little different in that it is not written for Charles, but rather James, then known as the Duke of York, celebrating his return from Scotland, where he had been High Commissioner since 1679. The anonymous text calls James "the next in succession"; otherwise it is mainly the praise of Charles that is sung, and that justifies the inclusion of this piece in a programme devoted to him. The work is scored for voices, two recorders, four-part strings and basso continuo. As so often, the opening symphony starts with dotted rhythms. Next are a number of vocal sections for solo voice(s) and chorus, and sometimes also an instrumental ritornello. Notable is the first solo, 'All the grandeur he possesses', which is set for a high tenor, very much alike the French haute-contre.

From those serene and rapturous joys dates from 1684 and was written to celebrate Charles's return to Whitehall in September of that year. The text was written by Thomas Flatman, a poet and miniature painter. It is not assessed very positively by modern analysts, including Harry Christophers, who, in his introduction in the booklet, states: "[One] will never know how Purcell, let alone his singers, kept a straight face with Flatman's hilarious overindulgence in hyperbole. Methinks Flatman was a better miniaturist painter than he was a poet". However, as we have already noted, texts of occasional works were mostly not of the best quality anyway. This Welcome song again opens with a symphony for strings and basso continuo, and the first aria is again set for a high tenor voice. Notable is the bass solo, 'Welcome as soft refreshing show'rs', which requires a wide tessitura; at the first performance it was undoubtedly sung by the above-mentioned John Gostling, who was Charles's favourite bass singer.

The disc opens with one of Purcell's best-known verse anthems, Rejoice in the Lord alway, generally known as the 'Bell Anthem', due to the descending scales in the string parts. The text is taken from St Paul's letter to the Philippians. O praise the Lord, all ye heathen is a setting of Psalm 117. According to Andrew Pinnock, the author of the liner-notes, this anthem "sets just two verses from Psalm 117". Apparently he does not know that Psalm 117 has only two verses. Maybe he should purchase a Bible (and read it). The third sacred work is O all ye people, clap your hands, a setting of verses from Psalm 47 in a rhyming version by John Patrick. Whereas the other two anthems were written for the Chapel Royal, this work is rather intended for domestic performance. The same goes for the duet for soprano and bass Close thine eyes and sleep secure, which is a setting of a text from Divine Fancies digested into Epigrams, Meditations and Observations by Francis Quarles.

Purcell not only wrote some large-scale semi-operas, but also music for plays, either instrumental music or songs. Several of the latter are included here. Blow, Boreas, blow was written for Thomas d'Urfey's play Sir Barnaby Whigg and Retir'd from any mortal's sight for Nahum Tate's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Richard the Second. The song Thy genius, lo! - one of two settings - was Purcell's contribution to the play The Massacre of Paris by Nathaniel Lee.

Come, my hearts, play your parts is one of many catches in Purcell's oeuvre. The catch is defined by New Grove as "[a] type of comic round for male voices, popular in England from the late 16th century until about 1800". Catches "were designed to work well even if sung badly, and were not intended to have a formal audience; any listeners eavesdropping on performances would have been invited to join in." This means that musically one should not expect too much. Purcell's catches have their rightful place in a programme that intends to give an impression of the scope of his oeuvre, but I would not urge for a complete recording of such pieces.

In his vocal works Purcell made frequent use of grounds, and the two Welcome songs included here are examples of such pieces. The chaconne Two in one upon a ground is an example of a purely instrumental work of this kind. It is one of his best-known pieces, in contrast to the Overture in d minor, which has been preserved in manuscript. It is not known for which occasion Purcell has written it.

My impressions of the previous volumes in this series have been mixed. This volume is not really different. The solos are generally well sung, especially by Jeremy Budd and Ben Davies. However, it is especially the ensembles that are disappointing: the voices don't blend that well due to the vibrato of some. I also think that the singing and playing generally is dynamically too flat. Earlier I referred to the developments in the instrumental line-up, and the use of a bass violin rather than a cello in the basso continuo. Apparently these developments have escaped the attention of Christophers, as his ensemble includes cellos, but no bass violin. On balance, it is probably the single theatrical songs that are the most interesting and musically satisfying parts of this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

The King's Consort
The Sixteen

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