Theatre of the Ayre, Wigmore Hall

Noting in his Preface to Harmonia Sacra (1688/93) that the
‘youthful and gay’ had already been entertained with a
‘variety of rare compositions’, the entrepreneurial Henry Playford
addressed his new publication to: ‘others, who are no less
musical though they are more devout.’ For these
‘pious persons’, who are excellent judges of both music and wit,
divine hymns are the ‘most proper entertainment’, one which
‘warms and actuates all the powers of the soul and fills the mind with
the brightest and most ravishing contemplations’.

The devotional songs presented here certainly foregrounded the misery of the
penitential and the blisses of spiritual consolation which might be attained
through devotion — a fitting focus, perhaps, for the current liturgical
season. In addition to Psalm texts, there were settings penned by persons whom
Playford describes as ‘eminent both for learning and piety’ and who
include William Fuller, Bishop of Lincoln, and poet George Herbert.

While the lion’s share of the programme was de devoted to Purcell,
whose dominant presence would surely have made the collection more attractive
to potential purchasers, there were contributions by Purcell’s English
contemporaries, John Blow and Pelham Humfrey, whose collaborative ‘Hark
how the wakeful cheerful cock’ opened the programme, seguing from the
brief canon ‘Laudate Dominum’ to which the five soloists had
processed onto the platform.

The dialogue, begun by Humfrey and completed by Blow, between two penitents
was spirited and theatrical: as awareness of their sins mounted so did their
misery, and soprano Sophie Daneman and tenor Nicholas Mulroy joined in
lamentation — ‘Since then the cause of both our grief’s the
same,/ Mix we our tears for grief let’s die,/ But first our dirge
let’s sing, or cry:’ — the enriched accompaniment, as theorbo
was joined by viola da gamba and harpsichord, ironically deepening the
sweetness of their miserere.

Pepys may have described Humfrey as a man ‘full of form and confidence
and vanity’, but the anthem ‘Lord! I have sinned’ suggests
that his self-assurance may have been justified, for he was clearly skilful in
using flamboyant musical gesture to express sombre contrition. The Italianate
idiom — drooping chromaticism, angular melodic shapes and poignant
dissonances — was delivered with madrigalian vivacity by Daneman,
accompanied by organ and viola da gamba, but while the soprano’s phrases
were expressive, the line and tuning were not consistently controlled. In
particular, I found Daneman’s tendency to slide through the chromatic
sighs to be excessive; the sentiments she seemed sought are already present in
the music and need no exaggerated articulation.

There was even more Italianate virtuosity to enjoy in soprano Katherine
Watson’s witty and technically assured performance of Giacomo
Carissimi’s dramatic motet ‘Lucifer Caelestis olim’, which
enacts Lucifer’s fall from grace. Watson was equally convincing as the
imperious narrator, the boastful Lucifer and when she was when delivering
God’s condemnation, perhaps not surprising as the two dramatic figures
are, ironically, not distinguished in terms of musical style. Lucifer’s
deluded bragging — ‘O me felice, o me beatum coelestis gloriae
decoratum!’ (O how happy am I, blessed and adorned with the glory of
heaven!) — was delivered in nimble coloratura with a bright edge at the
top and real strength in the lower register.

John Blow brought Mulroy and bass Matthew Brook together in two rich duets.
‘Help, Father Abraham!: The dialogue of Dives and Abraham’
showcased the agility and diverse hues of Mulroy’s bright tenor as he
pleaded for Brook’s Abraham to show pity, while Brook demonstrated
rhetorical presence — ‘What son of Hell and darkness dare molest/
This blessed saint, scarce warm yet on my breast?’, he thundered —
and control of vocal nuance. In ‘Enough my muse, of early things’,
it was Mulroy’s registral range which was noteworthy, as he rose from low
depths to a fervent upper register, calling upon his muse to take up its lute
and play ‘Happy mournful stories, The lamentable glories of the
crucify’d King’. There was striking urgency as the two voices
blended in thirds, and melismas were delivered with sharp musical and textual

But, this was really Purcell’s evening. Many of the Purcell’s
devotional songs survive only in manuscript, and so Playford’s
publication is a valuable one; the songs are some of the less familiar works
among the composer’s output but also some of the finest. On his title
pages to the two volumes of Harmonia Sacra, Playford noted that the
continuo part should be played by ‘theorbo-lute, bass-viol, harpsichord,
or organ’ and that was the ensemble gathered here, supplemented by two
violins, as ‘domestic’ representatives of the renowned Twenty-Four
Violins of the Chapel Royal. Brook was joined by the violins, viola da gamba
and organ in Purcell’s ‘My song shall be of the loving kindness of
the Lord’, and the instrumentalists provided a rich-textured symphony
between the arioso and recitative passages of Brook’s intense but lyrical
solo; there was some delightful interplay and dialogue between voice and
instrumentalists, and Watson, Mulroy and countertenor Robin Blaze gradual
heightened the exaltation of the choral Hallelujah. Brook’s performance
of ‘In the black dismal dungeon of despair’ was a highlight of the
evening: to the sparse accompaniment of theorbo, the bass wrought meaning from
every detail of the text — for example, opening the vowels of the title
line to convey the depths of suffering, or the rolling of the ‘r’
in ‘certain horrid judgement’ — and music. Here, too, the
unsurpassed naturalness of Purcell’s text setting was evident, in the
short-long sprung rhythms (‘Lost to all hope of Liberty,/ Hence
ne-ver to remove’) which punched home meaning, and in the
melismatic flourishes which reified emotion — ‘Being guilty of so
long, so great neglect’. This was a masterly rendition,
sustained to the final perfectly executed trill.

Contrasting trios of voices were presented in and ’I was glad when
they said unto me’ (ATB) and ‘In guilty night: Saul and the witch
of Endor’ (STB). In the latter, the voices moved with freedom from
ensemble blend to solo prominence and build the drama with urgency. The
chromatic piquancy conveying his ‘sore distress’, Mulroy’s
Saul hurried fearfully through his imploration, ‘For pity’s sake
tell me, what shall I do?’ but Brook’s Samuel was implacable in his
magisterial authority: ‘At thou forlorn of God and com’st to
me?’ Daneman was a lively witch, but at times I thought that, determined
to impress upon us the passion of Purcell’s declamatory idiom, she
sacrificed beauty of tone and precision for dramatic effect. In ‘I was
glad’, the interjection of the two violins rivalled the voices for
rhetorical impact.

The two female voices spoke with a pleasingly unified timbre at the close of
Purcell’s ‘Jehovah quam multi sunt hostes’; Watson
demonstrated a burnished lower range at the start of ‘With sick and
famished eyes’, and again negotiated the dissonances and disjunctions of
the more Italianate passages skilfully, though the virtuosity did occasionally
detract from the clarity of the diction.

In the concluding items, and with the metaphorical setting of the sun, we
moved closer to spiritual consolation and rest, with two ‘Evening
Hymns’. The first, to an anonymous text, was warmly delivered by Mulroy
and Brook, and again the interaction between instrumental and vocal bass parts
brought expressive richness to the close, ‘By sleeping, how it is to
die’. Robin Blaze performed Purcell’s long-lined melodic setting of
Bishop Fuller’s more well-known text with gentle understatement,
accompanied by Kenny’s thoughtful theorbo. Thomas Tallis’ hymn,
‘All praise to thee my God this night’, the textures engagingly
varied for each verse, brought the evening to a soothing close.

The continuo ensemble also performed three trio sonatas by Purcell, with
expertise and musicality. The unanimity of articulation and expression of
violinists Rodolfo Richter and Jane Gordon was remarkable, and Alison
McGillivray’s viola da gamba provided a lyrical even-toned bass, while
Robert Howard was an alert and crisp contributor at the keyboard and organ. The
increasingly complex and deeply compelling accumulations and variations of the
Chacony of the Trio Sonata No.6 in G Minor (Z807) almost stole the

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Theatre of the Ayre: Rodolfo Richter violin, Jane Gordon violin, Alison
McGillivray viola da gamba, Robert Howarth organ, Sophie Daneman soprano,
Katherine Watson soprano, Robin Blaze countertenor, Nicholas Mulroy tenor,
Matthew Brook baritone, Elizabeth Kenny director, theorbo.

Anon — Canon a 3 Laudate Dominum; John Blow — ‘Hark how
the wakeful cheerful cock’; Henry Purcell — ‘My song shall be
alway of the loving kindness of the Lord’ Z31, Trio Sonata in Three Parts
No. 10 in A major Z799; John Blow — ‘Enough, my muse, of earthly
things’; Henry Purcell — ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of
despair’ Z190, Trio Sonata in Three Parts No. 11 in F minor Z800,
‘In Guilty Night’ (Saul and the Witch of Endor) Z134, ‘I was
glad when they said unto me’ Z19, Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes’
Z135; Giacomo Carissimi: ‘Lucifer, caelestis olim’; Henry Purcell
— ‘Trio Sonata in Four Parts No. 6 in G minor’ Z807; Pelham
Humfrey — ‘Lord, I have sinned’; John Blow —
‘Help, Father Abraham’; Henry Purcell — ‘With sick and
famish’d eyes’ Z200, ‘Now that the sun hath veiled his
light’ (An Evening Hymn on a Ground) Z193, Trio Sonata in Four Parts No.
10 in D major Z811, ‘The Night is come’ (An Evening Hymn) Z77;
Thomas Tallis — ‘All praise to thee my God this night’.

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 23rd February 2016.

image_description=Elizabeth Kenny
product_title=Theatre of the Ayre, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Kenny