The English Concert at Wigmore Hall: Purcell and Blow

Harry Bicket assembled the ‘Dream Team’ for this English Concert programme of music by Henry Purcell and John Blow.  Seven internationally renowned singers were joined by new-kid-on-the-block, countertenor Hugh Cutting, who is quickly establishing himself as a singer of technical expertise and musical maturity, and seven superb instrumentalists.  As a result, there really wasn’t a great deal for Bicket, directing from the keyboard, to do, other than let his musicians perform with their customary ease and eloquence – and very evident enjoyment.

Though billed as a concert of ‘music by the English Orpheus and his own teacher – who both encouraged and survived him’, Purcell was very much to the fore here, with the Chaconne in G Blow’s only contribution.  Instead, the programme focused on Purcell’s symphony anthems and odes, many of which were written for royal occasions.

My beloved spake is an early work, dating from 1677, when Purcell had just been appointed composer to the royal violins by Charles II – the monarch having returned from exile in France with the sound of Lully’s Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi ringing in his ears.  Bicket balanced exuberance and elegance.  The instrumentalists relished the musical rhetoric and, despite their small numbers, produced a rich sound, commenting expressively on the text from the Song of Solomon: soft and comforting when it is announced that “the rain is over and gone”, offering pictorial enhancements with the birds sing and the turtle dove “is heard in our land”.  The solos (for alto, tenor and two basses) emerged fluently from the ensemble, and the singers’ attention to the sensual nuances of the text was detailed, though never at the expense of clarity of line.  The final statement by the solo quartet, “My beloved is mine, and I am his”, had a beguiling intensity, and the ensuing Hallelujah was lively but dignified.  One imagines that Charles II was pleased with his new appointee’s efforts, and would have delighted with a performance such as we enjoyed.

In contrast to the pastoral beauties of My beloved spake, My heart is inditing is more celebratory and festive in mood, designed as it was for the coronation of James II on 23rd April 1685.  The grandeur of the occasion was conveyed in the opening verse, with its image of Queen Maria Beatrice standing at the King’s right hand, “Her clothing wrought of gold”, and later the buoyant dotted rhythms and the bright sound of the sopranos and first alto enhanced the sense of joy.  The import of the reminder to the Queen of her new role and responsibilities, “Hearken, O daughter, consider, incline their ear”, was enhanced by the careful diction of the homophonic entreaties, and Bicket pointed the dissonances that mark the shift from “thy father’s house” to her husband’s dominions.  And, there was drama in the closing praises and a winning continuity in the “Alleluia” repetitions, as if the glory of the royal couple would endure forever.  

The ascension of William III and Mary II to the English throne in 1689 marked the start of a cluster of court festivities, providing Purcell with the opportunity to compose lavish, flattering odes for royal birthdays or other ceremonial occasions.  Twenty-six are extant, Now does the glorious day (1689) being the first of six to celebrate Mary’s birthday.  Bicket exploited the five-part string textures to draw forth an ample, richly coloured sound – not diminished by the absence of wind and trumpets – but used rhythm and accent to push the music forwards.  Thus, in the duet for tenor and bass, “Not any one such joy could bring” (sung with two voices to a part), the lightness of the triple-time dotted melismas was complemented by an underlying vigour.

The ensemble sang with discipline and distinction, well-blended and with unblemished intonation, and the solo verses were both authoritative and sensitive.  Creative interventions by theorbist Sergio Bucheli beautifully enhanced the tenor air “This our fertile isle”, and again the melismas which convey the glory bestowed upon the whole nation by the new monarchs were beautifully light and flowing.  The countertenor air “By Beauteous Softness Mix’d with Majesty, was wonderfully gentle and complemented by string playing of considerable expressiveness.  Bicket’s judicious tempo emphasised the stature of the final chorus, and at the close, undoubtedly “with one united voice”, the climactic proclamation of joy was radiantly emphatic.

Balancing these sumptuous choral ensembles, Iestyn Davies gave a characteristically serene, insightful and utterly engaging account of Now that the sun hath veiled his light, Bishop Fuller’s ‘Evening Hymn on a Ground’ here presented in an arrangement by Bicket.  John Blow’s Chaconne in G offered the opportunity to compare the older composer’s Italianate form, lively variety and chromatic nuance with Purcell’s well-known Chacony in G minor, the performance of which was notable for its lyrical fluency and lightness of texture. 

The programme was compact, lasting 90 minutes, including the deliciously comforting encore, Purcell’s Remember not, Lord, our offences. This concert was the musical equivalent of cruising country lanes in a Porsche convertible, one’s foot resting lightly on the accelerator as the soothing scenery sails easefully by.  Bicket and his musicians breathed freshness and life into Purcell’s lovely music: an uplifting evening.

Claire Seymour                                                                                                             

The English Concert: Harry Bicket (director), Hilary Cronin (soprano), Joanna Songi (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Samuel Boden (tenor), Rory Carver (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Edward Grint (bass), Tuomo Suni and Kinga Ujszászi (violins), Jordan Bowron and Louise Hogan (violas), Joseph Crouch (violoncello), Ismael Campanero Nieto (violone), Sergio Bucheli (theorbo)

Henry Purcell: My beloved spake Z28; John Blow – Chaconne in G; Purcell – My heart is inditing Z30, Chacony in G minor Z730, Now that the sun hath veiled his light (An Evening Hymn on a Ground) Z193 (arranged by Harry Bicket), Now Does the Glorious Day Appear (Ode for Queen Mary’s Birthday) Z332

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 27th September 2022.

ABOVE: The English Concert at Wigmore Hall (c) Richard Cannon