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Hear, O Heav’ns: Chapel Royal Anthems
John Blow (1649-1708)
The Lord even the most mighty God
[7:53]
O Lord, thou hast searched me [6:14]
Henry Purcell (1659-95)
I will love Thee, O Lord
, ZN67 [5:52]
O Lord our Governor, Z39 [8:51]
Matthew Locke (1622-77)
How doth the city sit solitary
, H8 [8:36]
Henry Purcell
Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven
, Z8 [8:53]
Pelham Humfrey (?1647-74)
Hear, O Heav’ns
[5:00]
Henry Purcell
Who hath believed our report?
Z64 [8:54]
Out of the deep have I called, Z45 [7:07]
Hear me, O Lord, and that soon, Z13a/13b [7:07]
Andrew Olleson (counter-tenor); Andrew Carwood (tenor); William Clements (bass); Robert MacDonald (bass); Stephen Farr (organ)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxon, England, 13-14 March 1995. DDD.
NIMBUS NI5454 [74:27]
Experience Classicsonline


Now that Nimbus and Lyrita are firmly back on their feet, I have been pleased to be able to offer a reminder of several of the Nimbus recordings made by Christ Church, Oxford, Cathedral Choir. You may wish to consult my earlier reviews of Taverner, Sheppard and Weelkes. The Taverner is especially fine. Look out for my forthcoming take on the three Byrd Masses.
 
This recording is based on the fairly tenuous theme of music by Restoration composers for the Chapel Royal. The other link is that all the other composers influenced Purcell, especially Blow who was Purcell’s teacher and his predecessor at Westminster Abbey. Pelham Humfrey probably also taught Purcell (see article in Concise Grove). The programme works well; though there is a preponderance of music in minor keys, this makes the CD particularly appropriate for Lent, Passiontide and Holy Week. Purcell’s Out of the Deep is a setting of Psalm 51, with its Lenten associations, and Locke’s How doth the city sets parts of Lamentations, prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer to be read in Holy Week.
 
In any case, the penitential as perceived by Restoration composers is not always a gloomy affair, as witness Purcell’s Out of the Deep. The gloomy Rembrandt painting on the cover – not my favourite painter, I freely admit – leads us to expect something more sombre than is actually the case.
 
Some of the reviewers of the original issue of this CD characterised the singing as routine. I have no quarrel with this description provided that it is understood that Christ Church’s routine is better than most and they certainly take the opportunity to lighten the tone where appropriate, as in Purcell’s O Lord our Governor. At times, in Out of the deep, track 9, for example, a lack of accord in the singing set my teeth slightly on edge, but such moments are mercifully rare. The singing here is certainly a good deal more sympathetic to the music than the gentlemen of the Chapel Royal apparently were to one of these composers, Matthew Locke, when they reportedly sabotaged the performance of some of his music in 1666. Perhaps they just weren’t up to performing it, having been out of business for the whole period of the English republic.
 
Even more to the point, I fully endorse the praise which those original reviewers reserved for the solo singing, especially that of Andrew Carwood. Robert MacDonald has a fine voice, but is not always at his best in the lowest register in Blow’s The Lord even the most mighty God. Otherwise there is much to be said for these well-recorded performances by a choir which regularly sings this kind of repertoire, not least the generous playing time. Nimbus seem to have got the hang of recording in Dorchester Abbey right by the time they made this recording – the sound is much more immediate and satisfying than on the earlier CDs.
 
The presentation, however, leaves a great deal to be desired. The Z numbers for the Purcell works are not given in the listing on the inlay or at the beginning of the booklet – they have to be searched out in the notes, where they are embedded in the text. Worse still, the anthem Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven is listed as Blessed is he whose righteousness and in the notes as Blessed is he whose righteousness is forgiven, just the opposite of what the text says, unless you happen to think that Purcell wrote it for a Black Mass!
 
Then, as for the texts themselves, they just aren’t there. If we had had fewer quotations from Pepys in the notes, entertaining as they are, there might have been room for the texts. They would certainly have been welcome. The text of the misprinted work above comes from Psalm 32 in the Book of Common Prayer, with variations:

Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven: and whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth no sin: and in whose spirit there is no guile.
For while I held my tongue: my bones consumed away through my daily complaining.
For thy hand is heavy upon me day and night: and my moisture is like the drought in summer.
I will acknowledge my sin unto thee: and mine unrighteousness have I not hid.
I said, I will confess my sins unto thee: and so thou forgavest the wickedness of my sin.
For this shall every one that is godly make his prayer unto thee, in a time when thou mayest be found.
Thou art a place to hide me in, thou shalt preserve me from trouble: thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.
Great plagues remain for the ungodly: but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord, mercy embraceth him on every side.
Be glad, O ye righteous, and rejoice in the Lord: and be joyful, all ye that are true of heart. Alleluia.

Many will prefer the Hyperion recording of this piece with the King’s Consort and Magdalen College Choir; this CD (Volume 9, CDA66693) is no longer listed on the Hyperion web-site except as part of the complete set, though some dealers are still advertising it as available. (See below for details of the complete set.) The Christ Church version of this anthem, however, comes to life in its joyful final verse and Alleluia.
 
Some of the material in the notes seems to have been emended in the light of unfavourable comments by reviewers when this CD was first issued. The description of How doth the city is now more accurately described as a “full + verse anthem” instead of the puzzling “verse + anthem” as quoted in one review and the additional words “ensembles of” now makes more sense of “a variety of verse anthem in which the verses are always written for ensembles of individual voices, rather than for solo voices.”
 
If you’re still not sure what the terms mean, a full anthem is sung by the whole choir throughout, without solo verses, whereas a verse anthem contains parts for solo singers. Again in this work the text would have been very welcome, since Locke sets not the consecutive text of Lamentations but a catena of verses, beginning with adapted verses from Chapter 1:
 
How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she as a widow.
The LORD is righteous; for I have rebelled against his commandment.
Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled: abroad the sword bereaveth, at home there is as death.
 
Hyperion offer a full CD of Locke’s anthems, including How doth the city, recorded by Christ Church’s Oxford rivals, New College Choir, directed by Edward Higginbottom on the budget Helios label (CDH55250). Even at budget price Hyperion always offer full texts. If the Hyperion was generally held to be marginally preferable at full price, at its new price it is virtually irresistible.
 
For a representative cross-section of Purcell’s music I strongly recommend another Christ Church recording, directed by Simon Preston (DG 2-CD 459 487-2, mid price). You could even buy this excellent set in addition to the Nimbus, since there are no overlapping pieces and the general tone of the music is more upbeat. The recording dates from 1980 but does not show its age
 
Otherwise I recommend another Oxford choir, that of Magdalen College, directed by Robert King, in the Hyperion series of the complete anthems, some of them never previously recorded (CDS44141/51, 11 CDs; volumes 1, 2, 6 and 11 are still available separately). King’s version of Blessed is he is a touch sharper than Darlington’s and this is generally true of the other Purcell works on this Nimbus recording. Some of the individual volumes of this set would make excellent supplements to the Nimbus recording: Volume 1, for example (CDA66585) offers a 73-minute selection of generally upbeat anthems, none of them overlapping with the Nimbus programme. At the same time you may wish to try the equally authoritative performances of the complete secular songs from the same source (CDS44161/3 – see review).
 
For a fine selection of Blow’s anthems, you will not go far wrong with the Winchester Cathedral recording on Hyperion (CDD22025, 2 CDs for the price of one – see review).
 
Pelham Humfrey is the Cinderella among these composers, though he was highly talented and very influential in his own day; at least Nimbus do something to redress the injustice by making his anthem Hear, O Heav’ns the title piece of this recording. This anthem is a good example of his church music and reminds us how unjust is his comparative neglect today – he usually takes just a walk-on part on CDs, usually with his setting of Donne’s Hymne to God the Father. The performance of Hear, O Heav’ns is one of the best on the CD, with very fine solo singing from Andrew Carwood, Robert MacDonald and Andrew Olleson.
 
For an excellent well-filled CD of nine of Humfrey’s nineteen verse anthems in first-rate performances try Romanesca/Nicholas McGegan on Harmonia Mundi HMX290 7053, around £8 in the UK, also available on a 3-CD set with Byrd Masses and Antiphons and Orlando Gibbons Second Service and Anthems on HMX290 7454.56 for around £13. Having heard individual anthems from this set, it has been on my own shopping list for some time in one format or the other. An added bonus is that the McGegan programme does not duplicate the anthem on this Darlington programme.
 
This Nimbus recording is certainly well worth considering as a reminder that there were other composers of church music at the Restoration who can hold up their heads in the company of their great contemporary Purcell. The singing may not be quite all that might be desired, but it does justice to the music and the recording is good.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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