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The State Funeral of Horatio, Lord Nelson
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1739) Dead March, from Saul
William CROFT (1678-1727) Funeral Sentences
Richard AYLEWARD (1626-1669) Preces and Responses
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) Psalm 39
Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838) Magnificat; Nunc Dimittis
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755) Lord, let me know mine end
Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838) Solemn Dirge
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) Thou knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1739) His body is buried in peace
Thomas ARNE (1710-1778) Rule Britannia
Franz Josef HAYDN (1732-1809) Te Deum
The Revd Canon Gavin Kirk (precentor)
Colin White (reader)
David Thorne (organ)
The Choir of Portsmouth Cathedral/David Price
rec. February 1999, Portsmouth Cathedral
HERALD AV HAVPCD 232 [76.24]

 

Nelson’s was one of the last full heraldic state funerals to be held in Britain; this meant that it was full of arcane detail which sounds quite curious to us today. In his informative essay Colin White informs us that Nelson’s coffin was accompanied, on its journey from Greenwich to St. Paul’s, by Nelson’s helmet, surcoat, shield and gauntlets. Not that Nelson had worn any of them; they had been made especially for the occasion, as if the hero really were a medieval knight going to his rest.

The centre piece of the ceremonial, reconstructed here at Portsmouth Cathedral, was the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Here the Burial Service was performed in the context of the Office of Evensong. The music was selected by John Page, one of the Vicars Choral at St. Paul’s. The organist at the service was Mozart’s pupil Thomas Attwood. Attwood contributed the setting of the canticles and a dirge for organ. The choir was made up of singers from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal and St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.

This brings me to a small point where this splendid reconstruction falls down. The original choir numbered one hundred men and boys whereas Portsmouth Cathedral choir number twenty-two boys and twelve men, though they do make a splendid sound.

It must be confessed that not all the music for the service is of the first water and the totality is as much of historical as musical interest. The service starts with the Dead March from Handel’s ‘Saul’, sounding a little bereft played on the organ without any of Handel’s orchestral textures; then follows William Croft’s lovely funeral sentences, originally sung as the body was carried up the nave by twelve seamen. The next four tracks are taken up with spoken sections of the service. This disc is most definitely not a concert; even though the spoken section is trimmed slightly there is quite a substantial amount of speaking.

The Preces and Responses are by the 17th century composer, Richard Ayleward, a composer who features more often on Church and Cathedral music lists than on CDs. Only one Psalm is sung - the second was cut for the recording - to a setting by Purcell.

Both lessons are read expertly by Colin White who also wrote the essay in the CD booklet. Attwood’s Canticles, specially written for the occasion are charming, which is not perhaps the ideal word to describe Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis settings.

The Anthem is Maurice Greene’s lovely ‘Lord, let me know mine end’. Greene had been Attwood’s predecessor as Organist of St. Paul’s.

As the coffin was carried out of the chancel, Attwood played his newly composed grand Dirge; this is a fine, evocative piece. This is followed by Purcell’s lovely ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’, which is beautifully sung by the choir. The final anthem is an adaptation of a Handel chorus, ‘His body is buried in peace’. On the recording the balance with the organ is not ideal, the organ being rather too discreet; I missed having an instrumental accompaniment here.

A final poignant moment is the proclamation of Nelson’s title. Then the service concludes, remarkably, with an organ version of Arne’s ‘Rule Britannia’.

As if they realised that the musical content of the CD needed a boost, the disc concludes with a performance of Handel’s ‘Te Deum’, a work which Nelson had heard in Vienna in 1800. Again I missed the instrumental accompaniment but the performance is lively and creditable.

The programme of this disc has a great deal of historical interest and it is fascinating to hear the reconstruction of such a major state service. Unfortunately the service dates from a time when English church music was in the doldrums and musically this disc is a little thin. But Portsmouth Cathedral choir, under David Price, along with organist David Thorne turn in a creditable and involving performance.

This is not a disc to be dipped into, but listened to carefully with Colin White’s involving essay as companion; the result is to transport you to an earlier era.

Robert Hugill

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