Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is to this day regarded as the finest composer of the English baroque period. His father was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal and sang at the coronation of Charles II. He also had three sons, of whom the youngest, Daniel, was also to become a prolific composer, but not in the league of Henry. When the father died in 1664 Purcell was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Thomas, who showed him great affection and kindness. Thomas arranged for him to be admitted as a chorister, but in 1673 his voice broke down, and in that same year Henry became assistant to organ builder John Hungston, who held the post of keeper of wind instruments to the King.
The most prolific period of his career was undoubtedly the last decade and a half of his life. Indeed, by the beginning of the 1680s Purcell was considered the most versatile European composer of his generation. His compositional acumen was amazing, and he turned his hand to everything, from opera, theatre songs and court odes to church anthems, chamber music and bawdy catches. His tragically short career, which lasted for a mere twenty-five years, was influenced more than it should have been by the extreme volatility of politics in Britain under the Stuart monarchs at the tail-end of the seventeenth century.
The early 1680s mark a moment when Purcell's virtuoso gifts took flight. At barely twenty years old he took the place of Matthew Locke, a master he greatly admired, as organist of Westminster Abbey. He wrote the first music for the stage at a period when no self-respecting London theatre production was without its songs, dances and instrumental interludes to add sparkle and atmosphere to the show. At the Chapel Royal, meanwhile, he was perfecting the favoured form known as the 'Symphony anthem', an elaborate hybrid of sung sacred text with sections of string ensemble couched in a style designed to appeal to a King who was very easily bored, and, as a crypto-Catholic, attended Anglican worship from duty rather than devotion.
What is so edifying about Purcell is the fact that, although he was absorbed by the cultural values of his own time, he never forgot his artistic heritage within a tradition of English music stretching back to the Tudor era.
This fourth album in The Sixteen's celebrated exploration of his music for Charles II includes the brilliant 'Welcome Songs': 'Swifter Isis, swifter flow' and 'The Summer's absence unconcerned we bear'.
Listen — Purcell: The Summer's absence unconcerned we bear
(track 24, 0:00-1:00) ℗ 2021 The Sixteen Productions Ltd :
The issue also encapsulates two of Purcell's most impressive anthems: 'The Lord is my light' and 'God save Our Sov'reign Charles', plus a selection from 'Theodosius' and two 'In Nomine' fantasias for six-part voice and seven-part voice respectively.
Listen — Purcell: In nomine a 7
(track 12, 0:00-0:58) ℗ 2021 The Sixteen Productions Ltd :
The programme is completed by the inspiring 'Benedictus' from the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas by John Taverner (1490-1545).
Listen — Taverner: Benedictus (Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas)
(track 11, 2:32-3:28) ℗ 2021 The Sixteen Productions Ltd :
Harry Christophers and The Sixteen give splendid performances that showcase all of Purcell's imaginative writing full of variety and diversity that is engrossing throughout. Indeed, the singing and playing are consistently warm and passionate, and Purcell's unique sound world is captured with affecting impact.
A superlative addition to this cycle, which is fast becoming one of CORO's great recording milestones. Sound and annotations are absolutely riveting. Unreservedly recommended.
Copyright © 15 June 2021