Sunday 6 March 2016

Royal Welcome Songs for Charles II - The Sixteen in Purcell

King Charles II
King Charles II
Purcell Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II ; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 3 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Fine music spiced with some 17th century politics, Purcell's music for Charles II

The latest in the Wigmore Hall's Purcell series on 3 March 2016 saw Harry Christophers and The Sixteen choir and orchestra performing music written for the court of King Charles II including pair of welcome songs. We heard the welcome songs, Welcome Vice-regent of the mighty King and Fly, bold rebellion, the verse anthems Let mine eyes run down with tears and O sing unto the Lord, the Latin anthem Beati omnes qui timent Dominum, the songs Sleep, Adam and take thy rest and Great God and just and the catch Since the duke is returned.

All were written either for or about Charles and his court, with the welcome songs and birthday odes forming a regular punctuation of the royal year. Of course music could have other uses too, and there is a certain PR or propaganda element in pieces created around the time of the Exclusion Crisis in 1679-81 or the Rye House Plot of 1683

With eight singers (Grace Davidson, Kirsty Hopkins, Daniel Collins, Jeremy Budd, Nicholas Mulroy, George Pooley, Ben Davies, Stuart Young) and fifteen instrumentalists the stage with quite crammed. But opened with a verse anthem with just continuo accompaniment ( Frances Kelly harp, David Miller theorbo, Alastair Ross organ).

Let mine eyes run down with tears is a verse anthem (written for Westminster Abbey in 1682), alternating solo and tutti passages. Throughout the evening the soloists were drawn from the vocal ensemble as Purcell would have expected. With its tortured harmonies, uneven phrase lengths and free recitative-like arioso style, the music was a perfect match to the text from Lamentations. Next came a song, Sleep, Adam, and take thy rest, sung by soprano Kirsty Hopkins again with continuo accompaniment. Published in 1683 in one of John Playford's collection, the text may be taken at face value, but the final verse can be seen as a dig at Charles II's philandering.

The Latin motet Beati omnes qui timent Dominum may have been designed for the Roman Catholic chapel of Charles II's Queen, Catherine of Braganza, or James II's Queen, Mary of Modena. Sung by Kirsty Hopkins, Grace Davidson, Jeremy Budd and Ben Davies, it was a relatively straightforward and pleasantly mellifluous piece. The catch, Since the Duke is returned, was sung by Nicholas Mulroy, Jeremy Budd and George Pooley, accompanied by the string ensemble. A fun lively piece (catches were written for entertainment after all) with rather pointed words - 'Since the Duke is return'd, well damn all the Whigs, And let them be hang'd for politic prigs'.

The first half closed with the welcome song for King Charles II from 1680, Welcome Vice-regent of the mighty King. It was Purcell's first court ode, written using short solo sections alternating  with chorus very much like a secular verse anthem. Not the most subtle of pieces in the mellifluous choruses with lively instrumental accompaniment, the solo moments included Nicholas Mulroy in a pair of delightful call and response moment, a rather intense duet for Dan Collins and George Pooley, and a lovely duet for the two sopranos, Grace Davidson and Kirsty Hopkins. It all ended with a rousing God save the King, something Charles would have been able to tap is feet to.

The second half opened with the large scale verse anthem O sing unto the Lord, written in 1688 for the Chapel Royal with words from Psalm 96; the occasion it was written for is unclear. Though the anthem is celebratory, King James II had fled the country by the end of the year. It started with a substantial and sophisticated symphony. Again a number of soloists were showcased, but the lions share went to Ben Davies' wonderfully dark and resonant bass, by turns lively, grand and serious. There was a great sense of Purcell taking the trouble to give each section of text a particular character of its own with various combinations of forces. The final section was remarkably perky, with some fine swagger  (and passagework) from Ben Davies before a lyrical Hallelujah.

The song Great God and just set a penitential hymn by Jeremy Taylor for solo soprano (here Grace Davidson) and continuo with Kirsty Hopkins and George Pooley joining for the final verse. Davidson sang with beautifully fluid control, bring plangent tone to the expressively word-based recitative-arioso.

The final work on the programme was the welcome song Fly, bold rebellion written in 1683 (the rebellion of the title was the Rye House Plot). A grand yet lively instrumental symphony let to a toe-tapping opening section with soloists performing severally. Other solo movements included a fine low bass solo from Stuart Young with characterful choral contribution, a quietly pastoral solo for Dan Collin and further solos for Ben Davies and Nicholas Mulroy, and a strikingly high solo sung with aplomb by Jeremy Budd,  plus a delightful trio for both sopranos and Jeremy Budd. 'Come then, change your notes, disloyal crowd' saw a striking ATB trio (for Dan Collins, George Pooley and Stuart Young). There were some delightful, often rather dancing, ritornelli between each section. The whole had a sense of a grand structure, enlivened with characterful details.

Purcell's odes and welcome songs have often been undervalued, partly because their structure does not always lend itself to larger scale performance and they are unsuitable for liturgical use. Robert King's pioneering recording has shown that they are to be much valued. Harry Christophers and the Sixteen gave us stylish evening of music which was by turns grand and lively, with an interesting dose of 17th century politics to spice things up too.

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