Purcell: The Complete Anthems and Services, Vol. 2
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Part 1: Symphony
Part 2: My song shall be alway of the loving-kindness of the Lord
Part 3: God is very greatly to be feared
Part 4: Symphony
Part 5: O Lord God of hosts, who is like unto thee?
Part 6: Alleluia
The anthem is unusual in many ways. Despite being composed on a large scale, there is, after the opening Symphony (repeated at the mid-point), almost nothing for the upper strings to do. The choir is treated even more lightly, singing only two brief and identical Alleluias. The Symphony is however a fine one, with the opening rising arpeggio creating a rich texture over its sustained bass notes, and the harmonies of the lilting triple-time reminiscent at times of the music of Georg Muffat, whose Armonico Tributo was influencing the early development of the concerto grosso during the 1680s. Although the style of the Symphony is still clearly that of Purcell, this late anthem does show interesting contrasts with the string writing of earlier works. After the Symphony, the solo bass dominates, first in a tuneful arioso movement, but then, more characterfully, in the first section of recitativo, ‘O Lord, the very heavens’. Here we find Purcell at his most Italianate, heavily influenced by the century’s developments in opera, changing pace and mood with great subtlety. A more lively section follows (‘For who is he among the clouds’), full of imitation between soloist and continuo, and concluded by the shortest of ritornelli, before the recitativo style returns at ‘God is very greatly to be feared’, with an especially poignant colouring used for the word ‘reverence’. The choir briefly interrupt with seven bars of triple-time Alleluias, and the strings repeat the Symphony.’
‘O Lord God of hosts’ finds Purcell at his most imaginative in this style, poised and dramatic – straight out of Monteverdi in the sustained high notes, under-pinned by a descending continuo scale, that mark the word ‘mighty’. Here is music that would be completely at home in the opera house. Next Purcell pictures the raging sea in splendidly descriptive fashion, full of running semiquavers and blustering effects. ‘Thou hast a mighty arm’ is perhaps less remarkable, set over a modulating ground bass, but the writing at ‘mercy and truth shall go before thy face’ is delicious in its ‘blue’ harmonies. As is so often the case, Purcell’s concluding ‘Alleluia’ is restrained and quietly understated, all the more effective for being so, and beautifully shaped in its bloom towards the end. It is then left to the choir to repeat their earlier Alleluia.
from notes by Robert King © 1992