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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
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 and John Williams (counter-tenors), Thomas Allen (bass), Equale Brass
Hail! Bright Cecilia – Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (1692),
Jennifer Smith (soprano), Ashley Stafford and Brian Gordon (counter-tenors), Paul Elliott (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), David Thomas (bass),
The Indian Queen (1695),
Rosemary Hardy (soprano), Martyn Hill (tenor), John Elwes (tenor), Ashley Stafford (counter-tenor), David Thomas (bass-baritone), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Gillian Smith, Dinah Harris and Jennifer Smith (sopranos),
The Tempest *
David Thomas and Roderick Earle (basses), Carol Hall (mezzo-soprano), Rosemary Hardy and Jennifer Smith (sopranos), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), and John Elwes (tenor),
Monteverdi Choir
Monteverdi Orchestra *
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardiner
Recorded 1976-82
ERATO 5046682812 [4 CDs: 217.13]

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Consolidated in a slipcase Erato has reissued these outstanding examples of Purcellian musicianship recorded between 1976 and 1982. All the LP equivalents have seen long service on the shelves of collectors and their new incarnation here with notes by Peter Holman, who was of course responsible for one or two touches of restoration in The Tempest, makes them still desirable acquisitions.

Of the four CDs the most commanding and consistently stimulating is that devoted to the music for Queen Mary. Though the sound rather favours the band over the choir all involved conjoin in a splendid realisation of Come, ye sons of art, one of Purcell’s greatest Odes and here graced by Felicity Lott, Thomas Allen and the counter-tenor duo of Charles Brett and John Williams. This is a recording that has easily withstood the test of time – such anyway as has elapsed – and I’d be happy to recommend it as a library choice. That is doubly the case when the Equale Brass Ensemble joins the Monteverdi Choir for the Funeral Music in a truly moving and sympathetic reading.

Hail! Bright Cecilia features different soloists but the choir and the orchestra are once again at their incisive and musical best. I grew up with Charles Mackerras’s rather Handelian recording of the Ode and it’s one to which I still turn with admiration. Gardiner’s aesthetic is of course different and the musical results differ; his opening chorus is inclined to be just a touch affected and Hark each tree must yield in expressive terms to Mackerras’s. Soul of the world does sound rather italicised and trifling after Mackerras – though doubtless critical judgement might urge one to consider Gardiner’s more apposite forces – and Wondrous Machine, here with David Thomas, is more tripping than awed.

The Tempest may or may not be by Purcell – only Dear pretty Youth definitively is – but the latest research regarding the possibility that some or most of it was written by his pupil John Weldon is as yet inconclusive. The Italianate string and vocal writing is certainly arresting – Corelli never far away – and here the chorus and band are on marvellous form; the articulation is crisp, the dances vivacious and virtuosic and in the final duet and chorus No stars again shall hurt you genuinely affecting. The Indian Queen also enjoys captivatingly fresh involvement. As with a number of these performances the men are rather more invigorating and evince a wider range of tone colour than do the women but that’s of relatively small account. The Act II What flattering noise is this is guffaw inducing, the chorus shine gloriously in I come to sing and there’s real plangency in Ye twice ten hundred deities – solo singing and accompaniment equally. I admired the oboe playing in the Act III symphony and the boyish toned Rosemary Hardy’s soprano air I attempt from love’s sickness to fly. And then most movingly of all there is the final chorus, While thus we bow, which reminds one of the final scene of Dido and Aeneas in its overwhelmingly stark simplicity.

The recordings always sounded excellent, even given the slight balance toward the two bands over the chorus, and they do so still. These are warmly impressive recordings and a couple have been fixtures on my turntable for many years. Strongly recommended.

Jonathan Woolf


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