Along with his earlier survey of court music for James II he is now a third of the way through the composer’s twenty-four Odes and Welcome Songs, works written for special occasions prompted by royal birthdays, the various returns of the monarch to London and celebrations of St Cecilia’s Day. Typically, these works demonstrate Purcell’s theatrical instincts and a natural gift for word painting, not least his ability to elevate prosaic and often obsequious texts with imaginatively conceived music of great distinction.
As with volumes 1 and 2 of this series, the disc combines sacred and secular music that, with few exceptions, brings to the fore several neglected corners of Purcell’s art – in part owing to undistinguished texts and the music’s occasional nature such as songs for the theatre. Two stage-based pieces, ‘Blow, Boreas, blow’ and ‘Retired from any mortal’s sight’ both display a sensibility to contrasting texts. The first is a vivid sea-faring saga to words by Purcell’s near contemporary Thomas Durfey in which the composer brilliantly captures a storm-tossed sea, its imagery given dramatic impetus by Mark Dobell and Stuart Young whose zesty performance fully evokes a sailor’s fears and valour. The second, in the form of a lament, allows Jeremy Budd’s gleaming tenor to express the impending death of the monarch in Nahum Tate’s adaption of Shakespeare’sRichard II. A third theatre song ‘Thy genius, lo!’ finds a lugubrious Ben Davies refers to the miseries of the French Huguenots portrayed in Nathaniel Lee’s play The Massacre of Paris.
A fine duet, ‘Close thine eyes and sleep secure’, forms a harmonically rich setting of words by Francis Quarles (originally attributed to Charles I), outlining the benefits of a clear conscious for a good night’s sleep. Tenderly sung by Katy Hill and Ben Davies their perfectly matched voices wafting over delicate continuo support. Two festive Psalm settings for four and two voices honouring by implication God and Charles II make attractive if unremarkable contributions to this compilation. More distinctive church music is represented by the well-known ‘symphony’ anthem ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’, renowned for its descending scale patterns and a text that venerates both Deity and King. There’s much to enjoy in the buoyant and crisply delivered string playing and a well-blended solo group with discreet decorative flourishes. My only reservation is the buttoned-up quality, its tutti passages fresh in an ‘apple-cheeked’ sort of way, but not quite hearty enough to arrest the ear. An instance surely where polish is almost a curse not a virtue.
Where the latter makes regular appearances within cathedral music lists, the Welcome Songs, especially for Charles II, largely remain unperformed. Fawning texts do not help ‘What shall be done in behalf of the man?’ and ‘From those serene and rapturous joys’ which will continue to be seldom-performed curiosities. Fascinating as they may be in sharpening our understanding of royal approval and political undercurrents in the 17 th century, Purcell’s skill in trumping weak verse is neatly summarised by the satirist Thomas Brown (1662-1704) who wrote, ‘For where the Author’s scanty words have failed/Your happier Graces, Purcell, have prevailed’.
As ever with The Sixteen playing and singing are exemplary; a swinging opening chorus of ‘What shall be done in behalf of the man?’ pays tribute to the Duke of York, while Jeremy Budd capers like a dashing courtier through “All the grandeur he possesses”. Purcell artfully plays with rhythmic stresses in “Let us sing the praises” making the most of its anonymous text. Expressive harmonies in “Mighty Charles” do not conceal unctuous sentiments, but the winsome soprano duet “May all factious troubles cease” (Kirsty Hopkins and Katy Hill) makes a charming closing movement.
‘From those serene and rapturous joys’ (to a text by Thomas Flatman), was written to celebrate the King’s return to Whitehall in September 1684. Songs eloquent, dainty and rumbustious all create variety of weight and colour. Of particular note are the depths to which Stuart Young descends in “Welcome as soft refreshing show’rs” and, in the closing solo and chorus, Harry Christophers coaxes a splendid string sound with its evocation of trumpets and drums.
Altogether, Christophers coaxes neat and tidy performances from an octet of singers and an expanded string ensemble (including a pair of recorders and three continuo players) who produce an impressive clarity of diction and tone. The acoustic at St Augustine’s, Kilburn is also finely caught.
The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers
Purcell – ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’; Chaconne, ‘Two in one upon a ground’; ‘Close thine eyes and sleep secure’; ‘Blow, Boreas, blow’; ‘O all ye people, clap your hands’; Catch: ‘Come, my hearts, play your parts’; ‘What shall be done in behalf of the man?’; Overture in D minor; ‘Thy genius, lo!’; ‘O praise the Lord, all ye heathen’; ‘Retir’d from any mortal’s sight’; ‘From those serene and rapturous joys’
Coro COR16182 [74:05] ($18.99)