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Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Twelve Sonatas in Three Parts

Retrospect Trio
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Recording details: February 2011
St George's Church, Chesterton, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: August 2011
Total duration: 73 minutes 10 seconds

Cover artwork: Photography by John Haxby

This second Purcell release by Retrospect Trio has been hotly anticipated since its debut recording, a Finalist at the 2009 Gramophone Awards, was released; BBC Music Magazine described the follow up as 'a mouthwatering matter of urgency.' The four Baroque instrumentalist super stars – Sophie Gent (violin), Matthew Truscott (violin), Jonathan Manson (bass viol) and Matthew Halls (harpsichord/organ) – are reunited in 'Henry Purcell: Twelve Sonatas in Three Parts'.

Recorded at St George's, Chesterton, the recording beautifully captures the timeless beauty of Purcell's most highly regarded instrumental works. Continuing the composer's trio sonata texture found in Ten Sonatas in Four Parts, Purcell's later set is much more forward-looking to the later Baroque rather than taking inspiration from the old style contrapuntal models found in the earlier set.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'These performances of brief movements convey rhetorical suggestions of speaking intimately, unforced breathing, and listening attentively' (Gramophone)

'The Retrospect Trio speak the language of Purcell as if it was their mother tongue' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The best recording of these works I have ever heard …' (Early Music Review)

'This is an utterly delightful disc' (International Record Review)

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The two sets of sonatas composed by Henry Purcell provide a fascinating insight into the cosmopolitan and often conflicting stylistic tastes of English musicians in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Whilst musical tastes at court still leant very much towards the French models, with a particular penchant for ‘theatricall musick’ and the ‘French air in song’, English tastes at large were being challenged by the arrival on the London scene of several notable Italian violin virtuosi. This influx of Italian influences exposed the art of solo violin virtuosity to an astonished and – at times – altogether bemused English audience of connoisseurs and amateurs. On the one hand there were conservatives such as Thomas Mace, whose nostalgic fondness for the traditional string band repertoire led to a feeling of general uneasiness towards the new fashions of soloistic violin playing. Despite his public moanings about the latest assaults on his musical ear and his none-too-affectionate references to ‘Scoulding Violins’ there were others, such as Roger North, who were altogether more enthusiastic about the arrival of the new Italian style. In marked contrast to Mace, he openly praised the talents of the latest Italian import, Nicolas Matteis, describing him as an ‘excellent musician’ with a ‘singular’ and ‘surprising’ manner – judging the Italian virtuoso to have been second only to the great Arcangelo Corelli. Not surprising then that we discover North to have been one of ‘that company which introduc’t the Itallian composed entertainments of musick which they call Sonnata’s’. Of greater interest though is the fact that Henry Purcell himself participated in such musical gatherings in the company of these English musical Italophiles. His own remarks in the preface to the 1683 set of sonatas affirm a certain desire to promote the novelties of the Italian style.

‘Instead of an elaborate harange on the beauty and the charms of Musick (which after all the learned Encomioms that words can contrive, commends it Self best by the performance of a skilful hand, and an angelical voice): I shall Say but a very few things by way of Preface, concerning the following Book, and its Author: for its Author, he has faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters; principally, to bring the seriousness and gravity of that Sort of Musick into vogue, and the reputation among our Countrymen, whose humour, ‘tis time now, should begin to loath the levity, and balladry of our neighbours: The attempt he confesses to be bold, and daring, there being Pens and Artists of more eminent abilities, much better qualify’d for the imployment than his, or himself, which he well hopes these his weak endeavours, will in due time provoke, and enflame to a more accurate undertaking. He is not asham’d to own his unskilfulness in the Italian Language; but that’s the unhappiness of his Education, which cannot justly be accounted his fault, however he thinks he may warrantably affirm, that he is not mistaken in the power of the Italian Notes, or elegancy of their Compositions, which he would recommend to the English Artists. There has been neither care, nor industry wanting, as well in contriving, as revising the whole Work; which had been abroad in the world much Sooner, but that he has now thought fit to cause the whole Thorough Bass to be Engraven, which was a thing quite besides his first Resolutions. It remains only that the English Practitioner be enform’d, that he will find a few terms of Art perhaps unusual to him, the Chief of which are these following: Adagio and Grave, which import nothing but a very slow movement: Presto Largo, Poco Largo, or Largo by it Self, a middle movement: Allegro, and Vivace, a very brisk, Swift, or fast movement: Piano, Soft. The Author has no more to add, but his hearty wishes, that his Book may fall into no other hands but theirs who carry Musical Souls about them; for he is willing to flatter himself into a beliefe, that with Such his labours will Seem neither unpleasant, nor unprofitable’.

Setting aside for a moment this written endorsement of the Italian style, what makes Purcell’s sonatas so remarkable is the way in which the composer synthesises the most appealing ingredients of both the French and Italian styles, whilst not neglecting completely his English heritage and the harmonic curiosities of the indigenous consort style – homebred traditions very much in evidence in his earlier set of consort Fantazias. The most obvious English precursors to Purcell’s sonatas are the works of Ferrabosco and Coprario (‘Cooper’ to his friends!). Although generically French ‘suites’ they are scored alla maniera Italiana for SSB and organ. Drawing heavily upon the traditions of the English fantazia style, John Jenkins and William Young reveal through their compositions a sense of harmonic daring which was to become one of the most appealing and essential ingredients of Purcell’s own sonatas. Matthew Locke (Purcell’s teacher) must also be mentioned as a significant stylistic influence on the young composer.

Purcell wrote twenty-two sonatas in total and they have been passed down to us in two published collections. The publication of the first set of twelve Sonnata’s of III Parts (1683) was overseen by the composer himself. As we have already seen above, the composer writes in the preface that he has ‘faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters’. Apart from capitalising on the obvious advantages (in marketing terms) of making explicit the Italian connection amongst his own musical circles, Purcell alludes to a significant degree of personal exposure to Italian repertoire that has fascinated scholars engaged in the search for more specific compositional models. Although we cannot say with complete certainty what the specific Italian models might have been – we know that he was aware of Colista’s music and that sonatas by the likes of Cazzati, Vitali, Corelli and Bassani were available in London at that time – it is worth pointing out that one of the reasons we find it difficult to locate the ‘originals’ is because the musical voice of the ‘imitator’ is always the most immediately recognisable in the so-called ‘imitations’!

The second set of Ten Sonatas in Four Parts first came into circulation in 1697 (two years after Purcell’s death), with a preface by his widow. There is much to suggest that, despite the posthumous date of publication, these sonatas were already well-known. His widow writes of them as ‘having already found many Friends’. It is most likely however – given the experimental nature of the musical style – that this later set contains earlier works than the 1683 publication and was probably compiled from extant instrumental parts. From Playford’s advertisement of the 1697 collection we learn that the bass string part was written for the bass viol rather than the bass violin and that the particular choice of keyboard instrument was apparently left open to the discretion of the performer. The importance of the bass viol’s contribution to the general musical discourse is such that we should view these sonatas within the sonata ‘a tre’ tradition – predominantly a contrapuntal form derived from the early seventeenth-century canzona – as opposed to the more fashionable ‘a due’ style of Purcell’s immediate Italian contemporaries. Why then the numerical discrepancy between the title of the first set and the second set?

It is clear from remarks in the preface to the 1683 set that the composer’s earliest intention was to publish three separate-part books on the understanding that the keyboard player would realise a simplified version of the bass line, in line with common practices of the day. With the arrival in London of several important new continental publications, Purcell clearly changed his mind and decided to follow the latest publishing trends by preparing a separate (fourth) part for the keyboard continuo player. It would seem his publisher, Playford, was happier not to be burdened during the late stages of preparation with the arduous task of altering the engraving of the title page to reflect this new vogue, leading to the apparent ambiguity. Despite the discrepancy, both sets of sonatas contained four part books – for two violins, bass viol and organ or harpsichord.

Purcell’s sonatas are remarkable for many reasons but not least for the dense and closely-wrought contrapuntal interplay that characterises many of the faster sections. Indeed it is through the richness of the polyphony and the sheer inventiveness of the melodic invention that we find the essence of the composer’s musical voice. To this list of defining stylistic characteristics we should also add the composer’s obvious and exquisite fascination with bitter-sweet harmonic progressions and the often almost unbearable boldness of his dissonance treatment as important hallmarks of Purcell’s compositional style.

Judging by the surviving sales figures, Purcell’s sonatas appear to have been only moderately successful in their own day. Only Sonata IX achieved real popularity in the 18th Century – republished in 1704 as ‘That Excellent Sonata in F … call’d The Golden Sonata’. As to why it may have been nicknamed in this fashion, scholars have pointed out the possible links with Bertali’s Sonata Taussent Gulden or Vitali’s La Guidoni (1669) – both in F Major and based on the same triadic patterns one finds at the head of Purcell’s sonata.

Whatever the reasons for the waning popularity of these sonatas in previous centuries, they continue to delight and enthral both performers and listeners alike today. They stand as wonderful examples of the composer’s innate gift for assimilating the styles and trends of the French, Italian and English schools. This ability, coupled with his great flair for writing counterpoint led to the emergence of a truly individual musical language, charged with unusual and exotic dissonances and strikingly abrupt melodic changes of direction. Leaving the composer to have the final word, he once wrote of his art:

‘Musick is but in its nonage; a forward child, which gives hope of what is maybe hereafter in England, when the masters of it shall find more encouragement. ‘Tis now learning Italian, which is its best master, and a little of the French air to give it somewhat more gayety and fashion. Thus, being further from the sun we are of later growth than our neighbouring countries, and must be content to shake off our barbarity by degrees’. [!]

Matthew Halls © 2011

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