The Symphony is a fine example of a French overture: the opening is full of sparkling dotted rhythms and ingenious harmonic turns, and the second section dances in its triple metre, whilst still containing under that surface jollity the wistful character that makes Purcell’s music so unique – the falling bass line after the first, repeated eight bars of triple time is especially striking in its harmonic daring. The six solo voices first answer each other antiphonally, the upper voices calling to the lower trio, and then joining in sumptuous harmony. The imitative point at ‘and all that is within me’ grows amongst the solo voices until all six join for ‘praise his holy name’ and lead into a fine string ritornello. Vocal antiphony returns, but Purcell quickly strikes out on new ground, four soloists in turn naming one of the Lord’s qualities whilst the two trios respond ‘praise the Lord’. Again the vocal texture builds back to the full six parts, and the section closes with another fulsome string ritornello.
For the middle section Purcell is in more introspective mood, and the vocal texture is reduced to a male trio. The Lord’s ‘compassion and mercy’ builds over a pedal, and Purcell colours his ‘long suffering’ magnificently. A tenor solo ‘He hath not dealt with us after our sins’ comes next and leads back to a repeat by the strings of the triple time of the Symphony. Following this is yet another of Purcell’s splendid bass solos: the exalted position of the heavens is contrasted with the lowly state of the earth, the east is separated from the west by a suitably spacious interval, and the father graphically ‘pitieth his own children’. The mercy of the Lord is nobly portrayed, as the continuo line drops, for he ‘remembereth that we are but dust’. The antiphonal trios return, but this time the strings are added, creating a ten-part texture of three choirs. With the six voice parts now united, the music builds as we are exhorted to ‘speak good of the Lord’ everywhere, ‘in all places of his dominion’. The voices’ ecstatic lines are capped by a glorious string ritornello which leads into the final, brief exhortation from the choir, ‘Praise thou the Lord, O my soul’.
from notes by Robert King ©
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