Tuesday 9 March 2021

Happy return: three of Purcell's Royal odes from Robert King and the King's Consort

Henry Purcell Royal Odes; The King's Consort, Robert King; VIVAT

Henry Purcell Royal Odes; The King's Consort, Robert King; VIVAT

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Returning to repertoire they first recorded 30 years ago, The King's Consort in three richly rewarding Purcell odes

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Robert King and the King's Consort recorded Purcell's Complete Odes and Welcome Songs, eight discs devoted to repertoire which was at the time barely known or understood. Now, on the Vivat label, Robert King and the King's Consort have returned to this repertoire, with three of Purcell's Royal Odes, Why, why are all the Muses mute?, Now does the glorious day appear and Welcome, welcome, glorious morn, with vocal ensemble made up of Carolyn Sampson, Emily Owen, Lisa Beckley, Gwendolen Martin, Iestyn Davies, Hugh Cutting, Charles Daniels, David de Winter, Matthew Brook and Edward Grint.
So why return to these works which King has recorded before. Well, first of all why not, after all over 30 years have passed, and indeed in the intervening time King has conducted Purcell's odes and welcome songs regularly; he has conducted one of the works on the disc over 40 times. And the performers have developed similar experience, in fact Charles Daniels was on that original set and several of the other singers have been performing these works over 15 or 20 years. Similarly, the instrumentalists have greater experience of the music and our understanding of the instruments and the style for Purcell's music has improved thanks to experience and to research.

But the recording is also a product of the present circumstances. With work largely cancelled during 2020, it was to Purcell that King turned when a group of donors made a recording possible. And it wasn't made at any of the ensemble's usual venues, instead the performers were spread across the large symphonic stage of the Fairfield Hall in Croydon.

There is no choir, the singers (ten for Why, why are all the muses mute?, eight for the other two works) provide the ensemble as well as the solos. This is closer to large-scale chamber music than anything anachronistically orchestral, and it is clear that we are dealing with experienced soloists, the vocal textures are very much based around solo voices, yet all know when to come forward and when to hold back. One of the charms of these works is the way they flow so that the music moves between different groupings of solo voices, creating a single fluid whole. The more experienced singers get the lion's share of the spotlight. But whilst I could listen to a singer like Iestyn Davies for ever, it seems a shame that Hugh Cutting did not get a longer time in the spotlight. All the singing is confidently stylish, yet never self-conscious; the result of experience and understanding of the style. Since those explorations of Purcell in the 1980s, a real performing tradition has developed around his music and this recording shows the benefit of this.

Why, why are all the Muses mute? was the first Welcome Song that Purcell wrote for King James II, and it was premiered in October 1685, at a time when the Old Bailey was prosecuting all those that participated in the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion. Purcell's music his highly inventive, yet as with his other work for James, you can't help feeling that the composer must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek when writing a setting of this anonymous text puffing King James II as Caesar!

Politics was far more civilised after the 1688 'Glorious Revolution', and Purcell seems to have had a close relationship with Queen Mary, writing her six fine Birthday Odes. We hear two here, Now does the glorious day appear from 1689 with words by Thomas Shadwell, the newly appointed Poet Laureate, and Welcome, welcome, glorious morn from 1691 which adds trumpets and oboes to the mix of strings to glorious effect.

This is wonderful music, and these performances bring it alive brilliantly. There is a lovely lived-in quality to the performances, the sense of people returning to repertoire that is known and loved. I would not want to be without my complete set of odes and welcome songs, and I have also been enjoying Harry Christophers and The Sixteen's exploration of this repertoire, though they mix the odes and welcome songs with other more diverse repertoire. Here, Robert King and the King's Consort give us a superbly concentrated disc, with just three of the most imaginative works.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - Why, why are all the Muses mute? Z343 (1685) [29:08]
Henry Purcell - Now does the glorious day appear Z332 (1689) [24.56]
Henry Purcell  - Welcome, welcome, glorious morn Z338 (1691) [27.08]
The King's Consort
Carolyn Sampson, Emily Owen, Lisa Beckley, Gwendolen Martin, Iestyn Davies, Hugh Cutting, Charles Daniels, David de Winter, Matthew Brook, Edward Grint.
Robert King (conductor)
VIVAT 121 1CD [81.12]

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