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Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Essential Purcell

The King's Consort, Robert King (conductor)
Super-budget price sampler
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: September 1994
Total duration: 79 minutes 32 seconds
 

Reviews

'Not to be missed… the gateway to an absolute treasure trove of delights' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Magnificent performances of Purcell masterpieces' (In Tune, Japan)

'This is the winner among inexpensive samplers, and highly recommended. Almost 80 minutes of very great music, sensitively and smartly performed' (Classic CD Scout, USA)

'Performances like these cement Purcell's place as the greatest of all English composers. Rarely does does one find a disc as exemplary as this. Joy, exultation, and tears will help to prolong the effects of these great performances long after the final chords have died away. This is essential repertoire heard through an essential recording and is very highly recommended' (Audiophilia Online Magazine, http://www.audiophilia.com)

Raised amidst the veritable explosion of culture that greeted the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, Henry Purcell stands as a colossus in English music. Hugely prolific, he wrote with equal skill and imagination for the church, t he court, the theatre, for his royal patrons and for small domestic forces: he produced over a hundred anthems, services and devotional songs of amazing originality, twenty-four magnificent Odes and Welcome Songs, an opera and four semi-operas, incidental music to over forty plays, more than a hundred secular songs and duets, over forty pieces of brilliantly inventive instrumental chamber music and more besides.

Purcell lived all his life in London; the capital was busy, dirty, crowded, unpredictable but always buzzing. As a child he lived through the plague and the Great Fire of London; tragedy struck at the age of only five when his father died. The young Purcell learned his musical craft as a boy chorister at the Chapel Royal; when his voice broke (at the unusually early age of fourteen) he was apprenticed to the keeper of the royal instruments. His extraordinary talents must have been evident, for his first official Court appointments came whilst he was still in his teens. He became organist of Westminster Abbey at the age of only nineteen and additionally became one of the organists at the Chapel Royal. He served in the colourful court of Charles II, writing and performing vast amounts for his royal employer; he also witnessed the lascivious behaviour and wanton excess that gave such excellent fodder to contemporary diarists. He watched as the far less likeable King James dug his own political grave and looked on as the Glorious Revolution brought William and Mary to the throne. And all the time he composed. As opportunities for court musicians waned, Purcell turned his attention to the world of the theatre; he was London’s busiest and most sought-after composer, adored and revered by his contemporaries.

The variety, originality and sheer craftsmanship of Purcell’s work is astonishing. He was a consummate setter of words under whose skill even the most hackneyed piece of English doggerel could leap into sparkling life. His writing for instruments is breathtaking. Hyperion and The King’s Consort have long championed Purcell’s music, recording three trail-blazing series of ‘Complete Purcell’—the odes and welcome songs, the secular solo songs and the church music. Choosing music from these twenty-five albums—some thirty hours’ listening—to fill just 79 minutes means that we can present twenty musical jewels of magnificent richness, but have had to leave out many more.

Purcell’s wonderful, daring music stands not just amongst the greatest of the whole baroque era, but alongside that of the true geniuses of all musical history. It was not without justification that his contemporary Thomas Tudway asserted that Purcell, ‘was confessedly the Greatest Genius we ever had’.

Welcome, welcome glorious morn Symphony and opening chorus
Purcell composed six of his finest Odes in successive years from 1689 to celebrate the birthday on April 30th of his great patron Queen Mary. For his 1691 offering to the Queen, Purcell was on sparkling form, writing a glorious instrumental symphony, full of joyous interplay between trumpets, oboes and strings, and a marvellous opening tenor solo and chorus.

Be welcome then, great Sir
Purcell’s Welcome Song for Charles II’s return to London in the autumn of 1683, Fly, bold rebellion, contained an entrancing setting, over a three-bar walking ground bass, of ‘Be welcome then, great Sir’. At the mid-point the strings enter with a ravishing string ritomello of quite melting beauty.

Oh, fair Cedaria
Oh, fair Cedaria is one of the most perfect of all Purcell’s songs, published seven years after his death in the 1702 second edition of Orpheus Britannicus. From the first note to the last, the word setting is exquisite. The last stanza is extraordinary, containing a series of increasingly desolate pleas to ‘pity me’. Little wonder that Purcell’s contemporaries held him in such universal awe.

Hear my prayer, O Lord
The eight-part setting of Hear my prayer, O Lord is one of the truly great anthems of the English church music repertory, dating from around 1680. It was probably only the opening section of a larger piece that Purcell did not complete. With a despairing text and large vocal forces at his disposal, Purcell’s harmonic language—always, after the opening phrases, in at least six parts—is exceptional, but the most extraordinary feature of the anthem is the build-up which Purcell orchestrates from the outset. Here is an inexorable vocal crescendo lasting over three minutes, culminating on a monumental discord at the penultimate bar.

When I am laid in earth (‘Dido’s Lament’)
Angela East (cello), Barry Guy (double bass), Robert King (chamber organ) Purcell’s only full opera, Dido and Aeneas, stands proudly as one of the great monuments of English music. The drama culminates in Dido’s famous, desolate lament ‘When I am laid in earth’, written over a melancholy, falling ground bass. Such a poignant movement could have come from no other pen than Purcell’s.

Let mine eyes run down with tears Part 1
Let mine eyes run down with tears, dating from around 1682, is another of Purcell’s great sacred masterpieces. Jeremiah’s desolate text is treated to the composer’s rich harmonic and melodic language in a five-part vocal texture. Here is Purcell’s word painting at its most graphic, alongside some of his most plangent vocal consort writing.

The sparrow and the gentle dove
For the marriage in July 1683 of Prince George of Denmark to King Charles II’s niece, Lady (later Queen) Anne, Purcell set the Ode From hardy climes and dangerous toils of war. The work was especially full of fine vocal writing and wonderfully-scored string ritornelli: the centrepiece was ‘The sparrow and the gentle dove’, utilising the never-failing formula of a solo voice over a ground bass, transformed at the mid-point into a deliciously-scored string ritornello.

If music be the food of love first setting
Purcell made three settings of Colonel Henry Heveningham’s If music be the food of love. The first version was published in June 1692 in The Gentleman’s Journal. Heveningham takes the first line of Shakespeare’s famous passage from Twelfth Night and develops the thought in a different way as an incitement to love. The first setting is the least well-known of the three versions but has a ravishing melody which makes especially piquant use of accented passing notes.

Rejoice in the Lord always (‘The Bell Anthem’)
Purcell’s famous Bell Anthem, dating from his prolific period for anthems with strings of 1682-5, seems to have acquired its title early in its career. In the glorious opening instrumental prelude the pealing of bells is everywhere, not only in the bass part where Purcell’s ten-beat ground is repeated five times, but also in the intertwining upper parts where the juxtaposition of joyous scales with Purcell’s wistful harmonies gives the music a delicious bittersweet quality. The use of the Chapel Royal’s high pitch gives the string writing a wonderful sheen, and the two theorbos colour the texture with their constantly descending scales. Finally three solo voices break in with the eight bars of triple-time they reiterate throughout the anthem. ‘And the peace of God which passeth all understanding’ heralds a more thoughtful section, but it is Purcell’s inimitable dancing ritornelli which have made this one of his most enduringly popular anthems.

Hosanna to the highest
Amongst all the church music Hosanna to the highest is one of the finest examples of Purcell’s ground basses, its simplicity and stark modality hypnotic in fifteen, slow-moving repetitions. Over this harmonic anchor a solo bass voice weaves its melodic spell, with Purcell treating the text with quiet, controlled ecstasy. The author of the text is unknown, but these are marvellously graphic words and sentiments. The entry of a higher, second voice (at ‘be ravish’d, earth’) is breathtaking. In all his music Purcell rarely fails to beguile the listener with ravishing sounds, but here is an example of his genius at its most startlingly original.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts
The funeral of Queen Mary on 5 March 1695 was an awesome occasion. An extraordinary procession made its way through the streets of London to Westminster Abbey where Purcell, in his capacities as both the leading composer of the day and as Organist of the Abbey, had written music for the major parts of the service. The anthem was Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts for which the accompaniment was provided by four ‘flatt trumpets’—trumpets with a reverse slide. The anthem is chordal almost throughout, and maintains a startling control of melodic line and harmony. There could be few prayers more passionately nor more simply stated, and Purcell’s music moved many to tears. Thirty years later, William Croft was composing a new Burial Service, endeavouring ‘as near as possible I could, to imitate that great Master.’ He included Purcell’s own setting of the anthem: ‘The reason why I did not compose that Verse a-new—is obvious to every Artist.’

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling
Fairest Isle was one of Purcell’s biggest successes in King Arthur, first performed at the Dorset Garden theatre in 1691. A patriotic song in praise of Britain is sung by Venus near the end of the opera, its two strophic verses demonstrating Purcell’s genius for writing a tune of memorable yet simple melody.

Mark, how readily each pliant string
The centrepiece of Purcell’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day Raise, raise the voice (written around 1685) is a remarkable ground bass, a jaunty setting of ‘Mark how readily each pliant string’. Purcell’s insistently cheerful four-bar ostinato forms the background for a splendidly characterful soprano solo. The ‘pliant string’ prepares itself to a jazzy rhythm, the offering ‘of some gentle sound’ slinkily rises up the chromatic scale and, invited by the words ‘Then altogether’, first the two violins join the texture ‘in harmonious lays', and then the whole chamber ensemble—with a wonderful line for the tenors. The best is yet to come, for the two violins’ closing ritornello caps the movement with some of the most extraordinary instrumental writing in Purcell’s entire output of Odes. Here is music of astonishing originality; despite apparently breaking all the rules of harmony and counterpoint it still, somehow, ends in the right key!

Sound the trumpet
For his 1694 offering to the Queen, Come ye Sons of Art, away, Purcell was on sparkling form, setting an inspired text (probably by Nahum Tate) which was full of references to music and musical instruments. For the duet ‘Sound the trumpet’ Purcell resisted the temptation to use the actual instruments, choosing instead a lively two-bar modulating ground bass over which two countertenors demonstrate their virtuosity. There would have been wry smiles in the orchestra at ‘you make the listening Shores resound’, for two of the instrumentalists sitting in the band would have been the famous trumpeters Matthias and William Shore.

She loves and she confesses too
She loves and she confesses too is an early song which sets a poem from Abraham Cowley’s The Mistress (1656). Over Purcell’s ground bass the author joyfully and triumphantly celebrates his conquest in love. But suddenly an unexpected foe is spotted: ‘Bold Honour’. The composer’s musical depiction of this invisible enemy—‘Noisy nothing, stalking shade’—is particularly imaginative, as is the harmony of ‘By what witchcraft wert thou made’. But our lover is not to be defeated, and vows to ‘find out counter charms’ to remove his new, invisible opponent. Scheming to ‘rid myself of thee’ Purcell’s harmony is deliciously blue. The poet will defeat Honour, and capture this lady, at night.

O how blest is the Isle
Why are all the Muses mute was the first Welcome Song that Purcell wrote for King James II, and was probably performed on 14 October 1685 at Whitehall, soon after the Court had returned from Windsor. The Ode ends perfectly: the lyrical high tenor solo ‘O how blest is the isle’ develops into a ravishing string ritornello, full of Purcell’s harmony at its most glorious. But there is even better to come: Purcell appears at his greatest in the final chorus with a valediction worthy of Dido herself, the harmony dropping through the chromatic scale in devastating fashion. There is no more poignant ending in all Purcell’s Odes.

Remember not, Lord, our offences
In the vividly atmospheric five-part full anthem Remember not, Lord, our offences (dating from around 1680), Purcell’s use of harmony and discord, his startlingly effective word-setting and his mastery of drama are all magnificently demonstrated. After the simple, chordal opening Purcell increases the tension and, as the calls for mercy to ‘spare us’ begin to dominate, the chromaticism and daring use of discord increases: the music climaxes with a massive plea ‘spare us, good Lord’. The mood returns to supplication: Purcell’s harmony relaxes deliciously onto the word ‘redeem’d’, and the tenors’ dominant seventh clashes exquisitely with the remainder of the chord on ‘precious’. It is the tenors again who have a wonderfully subtle inner line at ‘for ever’ and, after such passion, the anthem ends as it began, with a calm prayer for salvation.

An Evening Hymn
The Evening Hymn is one of Purcell’s greatest devotional songs. Over the hypnotic anchor of a most eloquent ground bass the singer weaves a magical melody, calmly resigned not only to end the day in peace, but also ready to accept the blessings of heaven. The extended final series of Alleluias are personal, far removed from the extrovert settings more usually associated with that word. Purcell was a fine choir trainer, adored by his choristers, and blessed from time to time with an extraordinarily talented soloist. For the eleven volumes of the Complete Church Music series we too have been privileged to work with Britain’s finest choristers, colouring Purcell’s astonishing music with all the subtle textual inflections and vocal timbres that are unique to the treble voice.

Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day
For the annual celebrations of St Cecilia’s Day in 1694 Purcell produced a setting of the Te Deum and Jubilate which was performed in St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. Despite the grandeur of the sections for full choir and orchestra it is the chamber movements which contain the greatest gems. The centrepiece of the Te Deum, which finds Purcell at his most personal, is ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord’, set for the composer’s favourite countertenor voice. It is a genuine plea from the heart, made all the more poignant when we realise that exactly a year later Purcell himself was dead. Here is the composer at his most profound, piling up sequences and dissonances and pleading for mercy in the most ravishing vocal and string writing. The serenity with which the movement ends suggests that this is one prayer which may be answered.

With rapture of delight … Hail bright Cecilia
For the 1692 celebrations of St Cecilia’s Day the ‘Gentlemen Lovers of Musick’ turned to Purcell for a new work. He obliged with his most substantial Ode, which was performed by ‘the best voices and hands in town’. Hail bright Cecilia—a series of large, contrapuntal choruses, an extensive symphony and a host of strikingly varied solo movements—is an extended hymn in praise of St Cecilia which closes with a magnificent chorus. At its mid-point comes the ecstatic quartet ‘With rapture of delight’ (with which this album extract begins) and the final, joyful paean to the patron saint of music. Full choir, oboes, strings, continuo, trumpets and timpani combine majestically in the most wonderfully uplifting music.

Robert King © 1994

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