Sunday 2 July 2017

Occasional but not negligible: Purcell odes and welcome songs from the Sixteen

The Sixteen (photo Arnaud Stephenson)
The Sixteen (photo Arnaud Stephenson)
Purcell Songs and Odes from the Reign of King Charles II; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 30 2017
Star rating: 4.5

An engaging programme of Purcell's occasional music

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen returned to Wigmore Hall on 30 June 2017 for a further exploration of Purcell's choral and vocal music, with a programme of songs, anthems and odes. The music performed all date from the reign of King Charles II including Welcome to all the Pleasures (Ode for St Cecilia's Day), From hardy climes (Welcome song for the Wedding of Prince George and Princess Anne), Hear my prayer, O Lord, O Solitude and From silent shades

The concert featured eight singers (Katy Hill, Kirsty Hopkins, Daniel Budd, Mark Dobell, George Pooley, Ben Davies) and a large instrumental ensemble (strings and continuo, 15 performers in all) from which the performers for each item were selected. This caused some delays as performers and platform were re-arranged, but enabled us to have a varied and engaging view of Purcell's songs and odes from a particular period in his life, the reign of Charles II.

Much of Purcell's music in this genre, the various Odes and Welcome Songs, is occasional written for a particular occasion and hardly performed again. But Robert King's ground breaking surveys of the Purcell's music have shown that this is not negligible music, and it was a delight to hear two substantial odes alongside a number of other works which are rarely performed.

We started with Purcell's Hear my Prayer, O Lord. Fascinatingly, Andrew Pinnock's informative article suggested that the piece was part of a planned larger-scale piece which remained unfinished when the plans for Charles II's funeral changed from large-scale public to private after the King's death-bed conversion. Accompanied just by organ, the Sixteen gave a beautifully sung account of the piece, relishing the chromatic harmony, and reaching a vibrant climax.
Next, Katy Hill sang O Solitude, accompanied at first just by cello, creating a striking contrast between the spare texture and the rather elaborate vocal lines, with the theorbo only joining at a later stanza. Hill sang with plangent tones and fine sense of line, but I had to concentrate to get the words and the whole performance felt a little contained.

Lord, how long wilt thou be angry, a five-part verse anthem setting Psalm 79, was sung by just five singers accompanied by organ, theorbo and harp. The words are quite dark, bewailing sin, and the work received a beautifully formed and very characterful performance. This was followed by the Pavan a 4 in G minor played by a string quartet. This was slow, intense counterpoint, played with very plangent tone and relish for the highly chromatic harmonies. Plung'd in the confines of despair is a three-part devotional song with really dark works and complex chromatic harmonies, here receiving a wonderful performance from two tenors and a bas accompanied by cello and organ.

The first half ended with Welcome to all the pleasures, Purcell's first Ode for St Cecilia's Day, performed with everyone assembled on stage, some 24 in all. This is as much an instrumental as vocal piece, and you could understand why Harry Christophers used such a large string ensemble. There was a strong, plangently toned prelude and then a series of wonderfully richly textured instrumental interludes between each stanza of the ode. These stanzas were all individually characterised, with many sung by a few voices (this is hardly a choral work at all), so we had a mellifluous solo from Daniel Collins, a resonant solo from Ben Davies, and some engaging one-to-a-part ensembles culminating in a vivid finale.

After the interval we heard the anthem In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust with Daniel Collins, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies accompanied by string ensemble (the full vocal ensemble only being used for the final Alleluia). The vocal writing her was sober, grave, and highly expressive with the piece being enlivened by the rhythmic felicities in voices and in strings, as well as some fabulous string ritornellos.

From silent shades (subtitled Bess of Bedlam) saw Kirsty Hopkins accompanied by cello, theorbo and harp. Hopkins really gave us a good sense of character, aptly bringing out the varied styles of the piece and rising to some moments of vivid drama. Then came one of Purcell's catches, Of all the instruments that are, rendered with great delight by Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell and George Pooley.

Finally we heard From Hardy Climes, the ode for the wedding of Princess Anne and Prince George of Denmark, again performed by the whole group of singers and instrumentalists. There was a grand sinfonia at the opening with, again, infectious ritornelli between the verses. We heard two vibrant solos from Stuart Young, whilst Jeremy Budd showed impressive freedom in the high tenor solo and Mark Dobell was charmingly fluid in the elaborate figuration in his solo over a ground bass. There was also a mellifluous duet from the two sopranos, and an expressive trio from Daniel Collins, George Pooley and Ben Davies, all leading to a bright and lively finale.

Throughout, the performers brought style and clarity to this music and certainly vindicated the idea of using relatively few singers in this music.

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