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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Music for Queen Mary
Come ye Sons of Art: Ode for the birthday of Queen Mary (1694)
Music for the funeral of Queen Mary (1695)
Felicity Lott (soprano)
Charles Brett, John Williams (counter-tenor)
Thomas Allen (bass)
Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra,
Equale Brass Ensemble / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Recorded in February 1976 at Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London, England DDD
APEX 0927 48693 2 [44:59]
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Purcell composed a celebratory work for each of the birthdays of Queen Mary’s six-year reign, but Come ye Sons of Art (1694) is the richest and most festive of them all. Even greater is the magnificent and poignant Music for the funeral of Queen Mary (1695), a work that confers an added sense of retrospective melancholia when we consider that it was also played at Purcell’s own funeral in Westminster Abbey a few months later.

This recording is nothing short of a revelation, and a jewel among John Eliot Gardiner’s early music recordings. The only significant problem I have with the disc is that the voices (and soloists in particular) are not quite forward enough in the mix. The instruments take precedence throughout both works, and, occasionally I would have preferred greater projection of the vocals, particularly bass Thomas Allen. However, with singing and playing of this order such misgivings are easily overcome.

Come ye Sons of Art opens with a beautifully poised overture, in which the strings and trumpets interplay to evoke an atmosphere of anticipation. A joyful movement arranged for solo countertenor follows, where the invitation to “celebrate this triumphant day” is echoed by a full chorus accompanied by trumpets. This combination plays to Gardiner’s strengths, and the celebratory atmosphere is superbly evoked even though the choir is restrained throughout.

Of the other movements, the interplay of flute and rich strings in Strike the viol, is particularly beautiful. Thomas Allen, despite the recording-related issue already mentioned, is tremendous in The day that such a blessing gave. Felicity Lott sings the most delicate aria, Bid the virtues quite beautifully, accompanied by a lightly played oboe obbligato (alas, the instrumentalists are not identified on this budget reissue). Allen and Lott come together in the final movement, See Nature, rejoicing before the full complement of chorus, trumpets and drums provides an appropriate coda.

Of course, there are many recordings of this work available. Particularly fine renditions are provided by The King’s Consort under Robert King (on Hyperion) and the Taverner Choir and Players under Andrew Parrott (on Virgin), but Gardiner’s recording is very special indeed.

Queen Mary was only 32 years of age when she died of smallpox. There is no doubt that Purcell, the Westminster Abbey organist at the time, responded brilliantly to the task of providing a suitable musical epitaph. Music for the funeral of Queen Mary has seven movements, of which the March, a setting of “flat” trumpets (or sackbuts) and timpani, is the most famous. Gardiner’s approach is to emphasise the stately dignity of the music, beautifully observed by the Monteverdi Choir in the three funeral sentences. The acoustics of the Rosslyn Hill Chapel seem ideally suited to this poignant choral work. There is a lack of clarity among the various instruments and voices, but, for me, this simply elevates the haunting, melancholy text.

The Canzona, appearing twice, separates the funeral sentences, and sounds amazingly modern – almost minimalist in the motif interplay among the brass instruments. Once again, I was disappointed by the lack of information on the players who, without exception, play superbly. Following the final funeral sentence, Thou knowest Lord, the secret of our hearts, the march is reintroduced and a magnificent cycle is completed.

As with Come ye sons, Gardiner’s performance of the funeral music has a depth and gravity that is lacking in other versions. Overall, I find very little to criticise in the performance itself. Considering that it is now a quarter of a century old, the recording quality is exemplary and highly realistic. The packaging is unimaginative, but, leaving aside the lack of information regarding instrumentalists (and instruments), it is adequate, given the super budget price tag. This disc is, without a shadow of a doubt, one I would not want to do without.

Peter Bright

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