Purcell employs four soloists who work together as a consort and are also provided with solo sections: the role of the chorus is slight, perhaps because the choir at the Chapel Royal was not strong at the time. Purcell’s imagination was clearly fired by the strong text: the opening word ‘Who’ is repeated no fewer than seven times, first by the three lower voices and then by the quartet (with a daringly open false relation in the second tenor). ‘For he shall grow up’ rises inexorably, the ‘tender plant’ affectionately droops, and the ‘dry grass’ is pictured with a bare fifth. The solos that follow are full of word-painting: the ‘under tenor solus’ is provided with another delicious false relation against the continuo at ‘there is no beauty’, and the ‘upper tenor solus’ contrasts the anger of ‘he was despised and rejected’ with the dejection of sorrows and griefs. The bass is more noble in his comments, rising only for ‘stricken and smitten’, and the countertenor completes the doleful picture, mournfully recounting the wounds and bruises and graphically illustrating the flogging ‘stripes’. The refrain ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’, sung first by the quartet, and then taken up by the choir, is largely homophonic, and all the more moving in its quiet simplicity, especially the falling repetitions of ‘hath laid on him’.
The second section opens with overlapping entries from the soloists for ‘he was oppressed’ which rise up through ‘so opened he …’ only to fall at ‘… not his mouth.’ Isaiah’s parallels with a dumb lamb brought to the slaughter, and of a sheep in front of his shearers are colourfully set for the lower tenor, but it is the first tenor who is given the most Italianate, declamatory writing at ‘who shall declare his generation?’ This is followed by a triple-time air ‘For he was cut off’, complete with Purcell’s own echoes, and the final direction to ‘Repeat the Chorus All we like sheep and so conclude.’
from notes by Robert King ©
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