This superb disc gathers together a number of anthems
sung at the coronation of British Kings and Queens between 1685 and
1761: a time when Britain was undoubtedly a land with music!
It’s a disc which will make the British proud to be British, rejoice
in their heritage, and warm the heart of even the most ardent republican:
everything about it is positively splendid!
According to the accompanying CD booklet, the Bodleian
Library in Oxford possesses not only the autograph scores of Boyce’s
music for the coronation of George III, but also the actual parts (vocal
and instrumental) used on that great occasion. In the same note, Edward
Higginbottom suggests – though he doesn’t actually admit – that this
discovery triggered the wonderful collection of ceremonial music we
have here. All I can say is that Boyce’s noble music raises the curtain
on this enterprise in a most stirring fashion: and the performers sound
inspired – not at all surprisingly, you might say, for they used facsimiles
of those very same scores and parts for the recording sessions, and
thereby established an almost tangible link with the historic event
which prompted it.
Some of the texts crop up twice, which enable us to
make some fascinating comparisons: we have The King shall rejoice
in settings by both Boyce and Handel, for example, and Praise the
Lord, o Jerusalem from Jeremiah Clarke as well as Boyce, and again
(albeit truncated) in the closing section of Purcell’s My heart is
inditing. These comparisons reveal Boyce (no surprise to some, I
know…) to be a true master, utterly unworthy of neglect. The middle
section of The King shall rejoice, for example, is (typically…)
attentive to every detail and affection in the text, and builds majestically,
with glorious counterpoint and orchestral colour: this is in no way
inferior even to Handel’s noble setting. Judged by these standards,
however, Clarke’s Praise the Lord, o Jerusalem is disappointingly
restrained, even perfunctory: its best ideas are almost certainly lifted
(with precious little disguise) from Purcell’s symphony anthem of the
same name, and it comes a poor second after the buoyant rhythms and
soul-stirring sonorities adopted by Boyce and Purcell.
Blow’s music sits uncomfortably in this exalted company
too: it’s agreeable and inoffensive, but old-fashioned. However, that’s
partly because the coronation of William and Mary (Queen Anne’s too)
seems to have been a good deal less lavish than those for Kings George
and James, with elaborate music obviously deemed to be inappropriate.
You may have noticed that the music comes in reverse
chronological idea: I’m not sure why this sequence is adopted, but it
works well, and shows us (in case we needed reminding) what an inspired
setter of words Purcell was, and how diverse and utterly original his
music is. How expressively ornate his lines; how dazzling and irresistibly
dissonant his counterpoint! And what a splendid sense of occasion he
conveys with such expansive structures!
The booklet lists every member of the Academy of Ancient
Music used on this recording, revealing a larger-than-average ensemble
of 21 violins, 5 violas, 8 cellos, 3 double basses, 4 oboes, 3 bassoons,
3 trumpets and timpani. They sound wonderful in this ambient but admirably
detailed recording. And the 39-strong choir carries well across them,
with words crystal clear in all but the most ornate choruses: my only
regret (as so often in this kind of repertoire) is the sizzling of sibilants
which (almost inevitably…) results from the complex counterpoint
we tend to find in the most sophisticated settings.
As you’d expect, the booklet also includes all the
texts – in a mock-baroque goldleaf font which (I’m afraid) isn’t at
all easy to read – but it omits to give any sources (e.g. biblical references)
or authors: a pity!
This really is a wonderful disc – lots of truly glorious
music, intelligently assembled, superbly performed, and nicely packaged.
What more could one want?
Peter J Lawson