Wednesday 16 June 2021

Purcell's music never ceases to amaze in its imagination: Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume IV from The Sixteen

Henry Purcell Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume IV; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; CORO
Henry Purcell Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume IV; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; CORO

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
This might be well into The Sixteen's voyage through Purcell's Royal Welcome Songs but the performance are wonderfully engaging and Purcell's music never ceases to amaze in its imagination

Henry Purcell wrote Odes and Welcome Songs across three reigns, developing this strange genre despite limited resources and poor poetry. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen continue their imaginative trawl through this still under-represented genre and the latest disc on Coro is Volume Four of the Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II which includes Swifter, Isi, swifter flow and The summer's absence unconcerned we bear along with music from Theodosius and the anthem, The Lord is my light.

As ever, Christophers casts his net widely, giving us a significant range of Purcell's genius from around the years when the disc's two Welcome Songs were written (1681-1682). So we begin with a catch, but given its title God save our sov'reign Charles it is no surprise to find that this is rather sober, but still good rhythmic fun.

Then comes Swifter, Isis, swifter flow written in 1681 to celebrate King Charles II's return from Oxford (hence Isis) where he had summoned parliament (so that the Whig opposition were away from their supporters), and promptly dissolved it. Regarded as a political masterstroke by many commentators, this in fact did not solve the inherent problems facing the relations between monarch and parliament, but simply put things off and led to Charles ruling as absolute monarch (with secret but significant subsidy from his cousin, King Louis XIV of France).

Not for the last time, Purcell's music reflects nothing of these politics.

Charles picked up a taste for music when in exile at the French court and his violin band reflected King Louis' Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi. Reputedly Charles liked music he could tap his feet to, and Purcell in Swifter Isis, gave him just that. Virtually all the movements are dance-based. After a symphony which begs us enter a richly imaginative world, a lovely solo from tenor Hugo Hymas establishes an elegantly danced measure. A surprisingly pastoral (cue recorders) bass solo from Ben Davies leads to an engaging dancey solo for Hymas, and the mood continues with a trio (Daniel Collins, George Pooley and Stuart Young). Davies' more dramatic recitative leads to a wryly seductive solo for tenor Mark Dobell and more seduction from sopranos Kirsty Hopkins and Katy Hill, all ending with a swaying dance for the final chorus.

King Charles II painted by John Riley
King Charles II painted by John Riley
around the time the music on the disc was written
Purcell's fancy for viol consorts is one of the quirkier aspects of his career as viol playing had rapidly dropped out of currency (apart from the bass instrument), though it is tempting to imagine him squirrelled away in some corner of the court with a group of elderly musicians playing these old-fashioned instruments. Here we hear two highly imaginative In nomines with the Benedictus from John Taverner's Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, the movement which gave rise to the In nomine genre, an imaginative touch of programming.

Purcell's music for Nathaniel Lee's Theodosius was written for a production in 1680, one of the composer's early encounters with the theatre and the music seems to be rather more integrated into the action of the play than would be for some of his later theatrical collaborations. We are presented with a wonderfully varied selection of movements opening with a dramatic chorus, then an elegant ensemble leading to a lovely duet. There is a characterful tenor solo from Mark Dobell (reminding us of other theatre music) and much elegantly plaintive music. By this time we can reflect on how Purcell's music selects from various genres, including the sacred, so it is no surprise that movements remind us of movements from Welcome songs! 

The anthem, The Lord is my light is a setting of words from Psalm 27 written for the Chapel Royal with the King's string band. Again, Purcell gives us engagingly toe-tapping music and manages to compress an enormous amount of imagination into a small canvas. From the rich tone of the opening sinfonia to the elegant dance measure of the opening vocal movement it is clear that there is a lot to enjoy in this performance, as soloists Daniel Collings, Mark Dobell and Ben Davies essentially dance an elegant measure, weaving in and out of the strings, with the chorus only getting a look in at the final Alleluia. The whole thing brings a smile to the face in a way which would probably make the original psalmist frown, but who can complain when faced with such a delightful performance.

Finally we have the second Welcome Song, The summer's absence unconcerned we bear, which was written in 1682 for the King's return from the races at Newmarket. Again a fine symphony leads into a wonderfully swaggering bass solo (Stuart Young) leading to a dipping and swaying chorus. Again, dance measures are to the fore but in this piece we notice that the chorus gets rather more action, often backing up the soloists. Young, in fact, has two moments to swagger finely, with a solo of quiet simplicity from alto Daniel Collins. Here and in tenor Mark Dobell's solo at the end of the work we notice Purcell's willingness to fine things down to just voice and continuo, yet all ends with a wonderfully vigorous chorus full of engaging energy.

Christophers performs these with relatively compact forces, eight singers (Katy Hill, Kirsty Hopkins, Daniel Collins, Mark Dobell, Hugo Hymas, George Pooley, Ben Davies, Stuart Young) and 18 instrumental players, and the allocation of solos means that everyone gets their moment. It is this collegiality which distinguishes the performances, singers perform as vocal ensemble or soloist or both, flowing between the two. The result has an engaging intimacy and vitality. The original performances in the halls of Whitehall would never have been on a huge scale and may well have been quite intimate. But throughout, Purcell's imagination shines and the performers enjoyment of the music is clear.

This is the fourth of the discs devoted to the Welcome songs written for King Charles II and the group has already released a disc devoted to those written for King James II, so I do hope that the series will continue to those Birthday Odes written for Queen Mary.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - God save our sov'reign Charles Z250 (c1682)
Henry Purcell - Swifter, Isis, swifter flow Z336 (1681)
Henry Purcell - In nomine, Fantasia a6 Z746
John Taverner (c1490-1545) - Benedictus from Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas
Henry Purcell - In nomine, Fantasia a7 Z747
Henry Purcell - Theodosius, or The Force of love Z6060 (1680) - excerpts
Henry Purcell - The Lord is my Light Z55 (1683-1684)
Henry Purcell - The summer's absence unconcerned we bear Z337 (1682)
The Sixteen
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Recorded at Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, 9-11 January 2019
CORO COR16187 1CD [75.37]

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