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]
(counter-tenor); Andrew Carwood (tenor); William Clements
(bass); Robert MacDonald (bass); Stephen
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Stephen Darlington
rec. Dorchester Abbey, Oxon, England, 13-14 March 1995. DDD. NIMBUS NI5454 [74:27]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
For a representative cross-section
of Purcell’s music I strongly recommend another Christ
Church recording, directed by Simon Preston (DG 2-CD 459
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,
volumes 1, 2, 6 and 11 are still available separately).
version of Blessed is he is a touch sharper than
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
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.
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