But before the singers enter we are treated to one of Purcell’s glorious string symphonies: the slow opening is marvellously wistful in its rich harmony, and the triple-time that follows dances elegantly in Purcell’s inimitably crafted style. A solo bass interrupts with his blustering first question ‘Why do the heathen so furiously rage together?’, his irritation given added emphasis by the repetition of ‘Why?’. The two tenors join in as ‘the kings of the earth stand up’ against the Lord, and lively running figures depict the breaking of bonds and casting away of cords. God’s answer to this challenge of his authority is to ‘laugh them to scorn’, illustrated by the solo bass’s jagged scotch snaps. The two tenors’ lines intertwine tantalisingly at ‘and vex them in his sore displeasure’ before more gentle triple-time writing brings the first section to a close.
Purcell instructs the strings to play ‘The Tripla of the Symph again’, introducing a more thoughtful section of semi-recitative and another substantial solo for his friend the bass John Gostling, whose graphic vocal illustration (over two octaves) of the ‘uttermost parts of the earth’ would have brought a smile to the royal face. The tone of the text moderates, and the two tenors gently advise wisdom as a better course than provocation. Purcell sets the word ‘reverence’ with especial deference, dropping the top voice nearly an octave. John Gostling’s bass still dominates: it is he who sings ‘If his wrath be kindled’, and the two tenors who timidly add ‘yea, but a little’, but homophony returns with the final advice that ‘blessed are all they that put their trust in him’. A short instrumental ritornello, including Purcell’s own instructions for echoes, links into a short choral repetition of the trio and a final, positive ‘Alleluia’.
from notes by Robert King ©
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