Wednesday 7 October 2020

Intimacy, grandeur, a new work and a new edition: Purcell odes and more from the English Concert

Whitehall Palace in the late 17th century
Whitehall Palace in the late 17th century

Purcell; English Concert, Kristian Bezuidenhout; St John's Smith Square

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 October 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A newly attributed work, and a striking new edition to a familiar work enliven an engaging programme of music by Purcell emphasising both intimacy and grandeur

As part of its on-line series of concerts of music by Handel and by Purcell, Britain's Orpheus, the English Concert presented a programme of music by Purcell at St John's Smith Square on Tuesday 6 October 2020 which was streamed on-line but also welcomed a live audience. Directed from the keyboard by Kristian Bezuidenhout, the English Concert performed Purcell's Love's Goddess sure was Blind Z331, Oh that my grief, Since God so tender a regard Z143 and Come ye, songs of art Z323 with soloists Rowan Pierce (soprano), James Laing and Hugh Cutting (countertenors), Anthony Gregory and Hugo Hymas (tenor) and Ashley Riches (bass).

As well as being a chance to hear live performances of some of Purcell's finest works in a venue built less than 25 years after his death (Purcell died in 1695 and St John's Smith Square was completed in 1728), the concert was also the chance to hear a newly identified work by Purcell, as well as to hear a familiar work in a striking new edition which restored it to something more like the state that Purcell would have known it in.

The English Concert
The English Concert

Bookending the programme was a pair of birthday odes which Purcell wrote for Queen Mary.

Whilst the 1688 Glorious Revolution brought a round of cost-cutting when it came to the court musical establishment, the tradition of birthday odes seems to have continued. That for 1692, Love's Goddess sure was Blind uses quite small forces, just singers, strings and keyboard. The text isn't anything great, but out of it Purcell weaves something rather striking. There is a large-scale sinfonia to start, rather grand and richly imaginative, and then Purcell extends a number of the solo movements with substantial ritornellos, each extending the musical material of the vocal movement in an imaginative way. The chorus (here sung by four of the soloists) is restricted to two movements and clearly was not expected to do anything too elaborate, so the result whilst quite sober is an intriguing and imaginative use of resources. By turns lyrical, lilting and swaggering, the solo movements were all characterfully taken by James Laing, Ashley Riches, Hugo Hymas and Rowan Pierce, with Anthony Gregory and Hugo Hymas contributing a stylishly ingratiating duet which contrasted highly with Hymas' solo moment, a wonderfully robust country dance. The final alto-tenor duet from Cutting and Gregory was the high-point, two voices chasing each other in the most imaginative way over a ground bass.

Next came something of a discovery, the male voice part-song Oh that my grief was thoroughly weigh'd. The work has been long known about, but it is known only from an 18th century copy. The survival of Purcell's manuscripts and early copies is patchy indeed, and we are heavily reliant on early collectors. Thanks recent researches, Professor Rebecca Herissone at the University of Manchester has argued that the work is by Purcell, and certainly it sounds convincing. Written in the 1670s, it is a long, intense and chromatic duet for two tenors with just harpsichord and continuo accompaniment, and a bass joining them in the choruses. The music is sober, almost a rich caramel colour, and the tenor soloists, Gregory and Hymas, made the most of the material with its intense interweaving of lyrical, yet chromatic lines. A striking work, and a notable discovery.

In the same vein is the psalm setting Since God so Tender for two tenors and continuo. This gives each voice a solo moment which is then developed by all three voices, alternating solo lyricism with intense chromatic, polyphonic writing for three voices. Another striking piece which creates a very definite mood.

The evening closed with Purcell's Come ye, sons of art which was written for Queen Mary's birthday in 1694. No copy of this from near Purcell's lifetime survives, and it is known only through a copy made in 1765. But lacking anything earlier, this 1765 copy has always formed the basis for editions of the work, even though it is clear that it is corrupt. Thanks to a discovery of a fragment of the original, and armed with the knowledge that the author of the 1765 score also adapted other Purcell works for which we do possess early manuscripts, Prof. Rebecca Herissone was able to create a new edition of Come ye, sons of art. This new version includes a striking extension to the opening symphony, and numerous alterations to the familiar scoring. Now written for a smaller ensemble, trumpet, two oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo, Herissone's new edition is closer to Purcell's original and most importantly has removed all the 'corrections' to the scoring added by the 18th century hand. The result is no less grand and imaginative, but rather smaller in scale and closer to the large-scale chamber music of the other court odes and welcome songs than the choral symphony.

Thankfully, the work received a fine performance indeed which was invigorating in its own right. The sober, large-scale symphony led to Cutting's lilting solo with some fine oboe playing and a really dancing chorus. Laing and Cutting's duet, 'Sound the trumpet' was taken at quite a lick, two voices competing delightfully over a ground bass, again. There was something a touch obsessive about the musical repetitions in 'Strike the viol' notwithstanding Laing's mellifluous voice over the onward flow of the instrumental music. Riches' solo, by contrast, came over as a wonderfully jolly dance, which contrasted finely with Pierce's long and intense solo, effectively a fabulous duet with the solo oboe. Riches returned with some fine passage-work indeed, over yet another ground bass, in a vivid account of this second solo, and duetting with Pierce the two singers very effectively coped with the large distance between them imposed by social distancing, and we rounded everything off with a jolly dance.

Purcell's court odes and welcome songs were never huge pieces, and even when writing for large forces much of the writing was intimate. They were probably first performed in spaces much the size of St John's, or even smaller. We have nothing surviving of William and Mary's Whitehall Palace, and their Kensington Palace was radically altered in the later 18th century, so we have to use our imaginations. And there was plenty of scope for imaginative engagement with this lively account of his final ode for Queen Mary.

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