The overture is a fine one, with the rising arpeggios of the slow opening creating a suitably mystical mood. The imitative second section is busy, containing much interplay between the four instrumental lines, and setting off the dropping sequences of continuous quavers against a smoother, more syncopated countersubject. The slow opening arpeggios return, and the strings provide a sumptuous accompaniment to the bass solo, originally written for John Gostling: once again, the composer stretches his friend and colleague’s wide vocal range to its furthest extremes. Purcell’s ability to convey in music both the miracle and the majesty of the birth is especially remarkable. The two other solo voices enter in joyful triple time bearing the glad tidings, and the section concludes with a graceful string ritornello.
The heavenly host arrives, first in the form of the soloists, then with the block chords majestically taken on by the full choir. ‘And on earth, peace, good will’ is set to a gently swinging triple-time metre, which is interrupted by the choir in a brighter key. Once again the triple metre takes over, only to be interrupted again by the heavenly host. This time the choir alternate with the soloists in bringing ‘peace, good will towards men’, and the strings close matters with another elegantly poised ritornello. Soloists and strings answer each other in joyful Alleluias, but it is Purcell’s heavenly choir which has the last say as they glorify ‘God on high’ in ringing block chords.
from notes by Robert King © 1993
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