disc which couples an ode by Purcell to celebrate Queen
Mary’s birthday and his music for her funeral isn’t unusual.
John Eliot Gardiner recorded one in 1976 (now on Apex),
Andrew Parrott in 1988 (now on Virgin) and Harry Christophers
in 1994 (now on Coro). But in this new release Stephen
Cleobury gives us two odes and a verse anthem as well,
a selection only otherwise recorded by Robert King between
1991 and 1993 (on Hyperion), scattered over four discs.
I shall refer to the Hyperions in comparison.
odes are not King’s College Chapel repertory nor are they
altogether suited to its acoustic. They were written for
secular performance by mixed soloists and chorus in an
acoustic space neither as sacred nor as ample as King’s
Chapel. Nevertheless these are suitably grand surroundings.
The performances are fine enough to dismiss these qualms
about their authenticity. King’s College Choir, as chorus,
provides a full bodied repetition of tunes first presented
by soloists. In Come ye sons of art, this amounts
to a fresh, in no way sacred, repeat of the title words
(tr. 3), a starkly arresting ‘The day that such a blessing
gave’(tr. 8) and a joyous and lilting finale ‘Thus Nature
rejoicing’ (tr. 12).
excellent soloists, from beyond King’s, bring a judicious,
clear but not overblown, theatricality to their projection
and elaboration of ornamentation on repetition. The famous
duet ‘Sound the trumpet’ in particular clearly mimics trumpets,
aided by the King’s Chapel acoustic.
Academy of Ancient Music provides smooth and stylish backing.
The Come ye sons overture has a forthright, well
projected opening with clean rhythms and oboe and trumpet parts
finely and correctly equally balanced, although the Adagio
section is rather propelled forward, more earnest than
other recordings timpani don’t appear in the final chorus,
presumably because it was felt that the surviving part
from an 18th century manuscript is too elaborate.
But a simpler, improvised part could have been provided.
Robert King does this (on Hyperion CDA 66598). His instrumental
direction has more breadth, ease and sunniness. His soloists
colour their projection of the text more, but what Cleobury’s
lack in such maturity and subtlety they more than make
up for in brio and enthusiasm. Indeed their spontaneity
and that of King’s College Choir makes Robert King’s forces
seem a little studied. He also uses a chapel choir for
this work, that of New College Oxford, and it sounds stiffer
than the Cambridge choir, with a slightly forced heartiness
in the opening chorus. So, on balance, I prefer Stephen
Cleobury’s more animated to Robert King’s more reflective
CD places Purcell’s verse anthem, Praise the Lord, O
Jerusalem, between the two birthday odes. This should
neatly illustrate that the odes structurally are just expanded
verse anthems. So the chorus should be reserved for weightier
repetition of material presented by solo voices. Here,
however, it’s introduced after the opening statement (tr.
13 1:59), not a repetition, rather than (as in Robert King’s
recording on Hyperion CDA 66585) kept in reserve for repetition
of ‘As we have heard’ in the following section (here 3:23).
Cleobury also introduces the chorus at ‘Be Thou exalted’ (4:05)
rather than reserve it for the repetition of ‘so will we
sing’ (4:36). This results in less contrast in the anthem
and weakens the impact of the chorus contributions.
Cleobury’s direction suffers from a determination to maintain
a vibrant momentum. Even in the opening sinfonia: the first
section lacks the expressive mystery, expectancy and contemplation
of King’s more measured approach; the second doesn’t provide
contrasting relief . King’s performance is therefore preferable,
even though Stephen Cleobury has a more pleasingly skipping ‘Be
Thou exalted’ and lilting Alleluias.
the second birthday ode on this CD, Love’s goddess sure, Cleobury’s
insistent, even slightly edgy, progression from the very
opening of the sinfonia doesn’t allow any relaxation, though
the second section skips and the harmonies, rhythms and
imitation are lucidly conveyed. This ‘hothouse forced’ approach
continues leavened only by greater flexibility in the strings’ version
which follows the counter-tenor’s opening solo (tr. 15
1:23), the bright, crisp repeat of the song ‘Long may she
reign’ (tr. 18 0:55) and the indulgently sighing verse
(tr. 22) within the final chorus. Admittedly that chorus
(from tr. 21) is otherwise excitingly pacy, though its
close (tr. 23) is somewhat gabbled, in a fashion which
brings to mind the witches’ choruses in Dido and Aeneas.
some novel, but I’d say unsuccessful, disposition of soloists.
A treble (from King’s Choir) used instead of the authentic
soprano for ‘Long may she reign’ lacks the polish and projection
of the others. ‘May her blest example’ (tr. 19) is also
better suited to soprano than to the counter-tenor used
here because it’s a more heroic than reflective piece.
It was first deemed properly for counter-tenor in Bruce
Wood’s edition used in the Christophers recording, but
Christophers assigned it to a tenor! In Cleobury’s recording,
as the result of the two changes, the soprano soloist’s
first appearance is, somewhat incongruously, in the verse
section in the final chorus.
King’s recording of Love’s goddess sure (Hyperion
CDA 66494) seems to me altogether preferable for more measured
tempi which deliver greater spaciousness, airiness and
intimacy well suited to this inward-looking piece. This
allows room for the soloists to be more expressive and
the accompaniment more imaginative. He also gets additional
colour by featuring two obbligato recorders to match the
counter-tenors in ‘Sweetness of nature’ where Cleobury,
like Wood’s edition for Christophers, arguably more correctly,
sequence of funeral music makes a moving end to this disc.
It begins impressively with a tenor drum processional (tr.
24) painting a vivid sound-picture of a massive presence
(including a coffin) approaching, like ranks of drummers
in battle array, within the vastness of the King’s Chapel.
Purcell’s March for four ‘flatt’ (reverse slide) trumpets
(tr. 25) has a chaste simplicity here, yet also expressively
tapered dynamic contrasts (as later does Thou knowest,
Lord). The Canzona (tr. 26) is more flowing, like a
celebration of life before the sober recognition of death
returns with the reprise of the March. Then the drum recessional:
the presence and coffin depart.
Queen Mary’s funeral the anthem Thou knowest, Lord,
the secrets of our hearts, accompanied by the trumpets
(tr. 31) allows a comparison with Purcell’s setting of
the same text at the close of his earlier composed funeral
sentences (trs. 28-30). These are given a fine performance,
with soloists (from King’s Choir) bringing an appropriate
intimacy, fragility and humility before the double emphasis
of the choruses. They repeat the preceding music and in
markedly fuller sonority, to searing effect in the rising
chromatic scale of the second chorus, ‘Yet, O Lord, most
mighty’ (tr. 29, 3:08). This is a more contemplative and
raw performance than the sheenier, more beautiful but more
luscious and affected - purer baroque, if you like - Robert
prefer Cleobury’s presentation to that by Robert King (Hyperion
CDA 66677). The latter’s funeral sequence begins with a
drum processional of five drummers. This has a more drilled
nature and less impact than the inexorability of the greater
measure of Cleobury’s lone drummer. Robert King’s March
is more sonorous but less solemn, his Canzona slower and
with more anguish evident. King correctly places the Canzona
after Thou knowest, Lord but his placing of Purcell’s
Funeral Sentences between this and the March suggests they
were part of the ceremony, which they were not. The most
authentic recorded realization of this is by Christophers,
but is less authentic than Cleobury or King in using a
choir of mixed voices.
sum up, these are spirited and well styled performances
from Cleobury, with some questionable practices. The disc
as a whole presents a unique, generous and contrasted selection,
a touching journey from joy to remembrance.