Thursday 21 January 2021

Influence at Court: the sacred music of Pelham Humfrey explored in a new disc from the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal on Delphian

Pelham Humfrey Sacred Choral Music; Alexander Chance, Nicholas Mulroy, Nick Pritchard, Ashley Riches, the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, Joseph McHardy; DELPHIAN
Pelham Humfrey Sacred Choral Music; Alexander Chance, Nicholas Mulroy, Nick Pritchard, Ashley Riches, the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, Joseph McHardy; DELPHIAN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 January 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A terrific new disc which brings out the French and Italian influences at the court of King Charles II with an exploration of the music of the talented, but relatively neglected Pelham Humfrey

Pelham Humfrey is one of those tantalising figures in English musical history. Aged 13 when King Charles II was restored in 1660, he was one of the generation of young men who came to prominence at the new king's court. Clearly talented early, Humphrey's anthems were in use by the time he was 17 and the king sent him to France (and possibly Italy) to study. This prompted what has become the best known item in Humphrey's short history, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on Humphrey's return from France:

"Little Pelham Humphreys is an absolute monsieur as full of form and confidence and vanity, and disparages everybody's skill but his own. The truth is, every body says he is very able, but to hear how he laughs at all the King's musick here, as Blagrave and others, that they cannot keep time nor tune, nor understand anything; and that Grebus [Louis Grabu, Master of the King's Music], the Frenchman, the King's master of the musick, how he understands nothing, nor can play on any instrument, and so cannot compose: and that he will give him a lift out of his place; and that he and the King are mighty great! and that he hath already spoke to the King of Grebus would make a man piss".

By the age of 27, Humfrey was dead. His music had a huge influence on his contemporaries and he remains one of the great what ifs. But few discs explore the composer's surviving repertoire. On this new disc from Delphian, Joseph McHardy and the choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, St James's Palace perform a selection of Humfrey's Sacred Choral Music including the Service in E minor and are joined by soloists Alexander Chance (counter-tenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), and Ashley Riches (bass) with a small instrumental ensemble led by Bojan Cicic. [Released 22 January 2021]

The Palace of Whitehall by Leonard Knijff,  c.1695
The Palace of Whitehall by Leonard Knijff,  c.1695 (20 years after Humfrey's death)
The Chapel Royal is in the centre block fronting the river, close to the great hall (click on the image to expand)

The disc combines Humfrey's Service in E minor (Morning Service, Communion Service, Evening Service) with three verse anthems, Ogive thanks unto the Lord, By the waters of Babylon and O Lord my God. When King Charles II returned to the English court he was very influenced by the court of his cousin, King Louis XIV and wanted a similar use of instruments in the verse anthems, so here we have the relatively new genre of verse anthem with instruments, combining elements from French and Italian music with the English tradition.

In his booklet note, Joseph McHardy points to the influence of foreign musicians (notably Italians) in London at the time, noting that 'our guiding principle making this recording was that the effect of Italian and French vocal music on the Restoration Chapel Royal was not simply on its compositional style , but on the institution's performing practice'. The pitch at which the music is recorded is based on the known high pitch of the Chapel Royal organ at the time, and the assembled soloists form an ensemble of alto, tenor, tenor, bass, with counter-tenor Alexander Chance taking the upper line (in the verse anthems) and tenor Nicholas Mulroy usually singing the alto line as a high tenor, very much in the tradition of the French haute-contre.

The sound world is undoubtedly what we would think of as Purcellian, with the ornaments adding a distinctly French tinge, and this synthesis is something that Purcell would take on board and absorb into his music. The verse anthems on the disc are all substantial pieces (between 11 and 13 minutes long), close to the grands motets of the French court. O give thanks unto the Lord starts with a long instrumental interlude, and generally the string instruments do not double the voices but play separately. Despite the sober style, the feeling of dance imbues this opening section, and then tenor Nicholas Mulroy enters with a rermarkable rhapsodic high tenor line, echoed by Nick Pritchard and we feel we are in a distinct sound-world with its mix of French, Italian and English. The soloists each have their moment, but Humfrey also uses them as a semi-chorus counterpointing them with the full ensemble.

Pelham Humfrey: Sacred Choral Music - Recording session at HM Chapel Royal,  St James's Palace (Photo Delphian)
Pelham Humfrey: Sacred Choral Music - Recording session at HM Chapel Royal,  St James's Palace
(Photo Delphian)
The chapel dates back to Tudor times, but it was radically re-ordered in the 19th century

Compared to the verse anthems, the service is compact, the longest movement is the Te Deum (4:54) whilst the shortest is the tiny Sanctus (0:41). Having a sung Sanctus must, in its way, have been rather daring, pointing the way towards the continuing development of a high church point of view, and the movement which is labelled Kyrie in the booklet is in fact the responses to the spoken Ten Commandments. The writing here is more sober than the verse anthems, everything including the Sanctus is dignified and the only instruments are continuo. But Humfrey still uses the alternation between choir and soloists to enliven the textures (here including uncredited treble solos). Words are to the fore, it was clearly important that they were heard, but there are still little ornamental touches.

By the waters of Bablyon begins with an instrumental introduction which is rather French, but Ashley Riches' terrific solo is pure Italian in its outlines. The soloists here, Mulroy, Pritchard and Riches, have the bulk of the action, and it is the rhetoric of the solo lines which really makes this work affecting, whilst Humfrey successfully manipulates his three groups, soli, choir and instruments to create moments of real drama. All in all, terrific piece.

The final verse anthem O Lord my God opens with an instrumental introduction which seems a real pre-echo of Purcell, yet Humfrey sometimes writes with a freedom that is all his own. Again, the rhetoric of the solo lines brings drama to Humfrey's treatment of the rather strong words from Psalm 22.

Having sung music by Pelham Humfrey, I have always been somewhat puzzled by his relative neglect. This new disc certainly does him justice and makes a strong case for the music. The four soloists make an enviably strong group, bringing their experience of the Italian and French Baroque to bear on the music yet not standing out too much from the choir. For me, the stylish solo singing is one of the highlights of a superb disc. 

It is lovely that these anthems, written in the 1660s and 1670s for King Charles II's Chapel Royal are sung here by the successor body. The ten trebles are sadly uncredited, but acquit themselves with aplomb, ably partnered by the six singing men of the choir. The small instrumental ensemble similarly stylish, and the whole, under Hardy's fine direction, brings a new sense of style to the music of this period. A terrific disc, and one of the highlights of my listening; I do hope that the choir is planning a follow up with more Humfrey.

Pelham Humfrey: Sacred Choral Music - Joseph McHardy - Recording session at HM Chapel Royal,  St James's Palace (Photo Delphian)
Pelham Humfrey: Sacred Choral Music - Joseph McHardy - Recording session at HM Chapel Royal,  St James's Palace (Photo Delphian)

[Those of you who read my December article about the Marian Consort performing music by Vincente Lusitano, the first published Black composer, will be interested to learn that Joseph McHardy is editing Lusitano's 1565 collection of motets for publication]

Pelham Humfrey (1647/48-1674) - O give thanks unto the Lord
Pelham Humfrey - Service in E minor
Pelham Humfrey - By the waters of Bablyon
Pelham Humfrey - O Lord, my God
Alexander Chance (counter-tenor)
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass)
The Choir of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal
Instrumental ensemble (Bojan Cicic, Elin Whit - violin, Jane Rogers - viola, Sarah McMahon - cello, Alex McCartney - theorbo, Martyn Noble - organ)
Joseph McHardy (organ, director)
Recorded in HM Chapel Royal, St James's Palace, London, 27-29 January 2019
DELPHIAN DCD34237-CD 1CD [59.02]

Available from Amazon, from Hive. [Released 22 January 2021]

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