Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Twelve Sonatas of Three Parts (publ. 1683)
Sonata No. 1 in G minor ZL790 [6.43]
Sonata No. 2 in B flat major ZL791 [5.56]
Sonata No. 3 in D minor ZL792 [6.21]
Sonata No 4 in F major ZL793 [5.35]
Sonata No 5 in A minor ZL794 [6.47]
Sonata No 6 in C major ZL795 [7.45]
Sonata No 7 in E minor ZL796 [8.00]
Sonata No. 8 in G major ZL797 [5.12]
Sonata No. 9 in C minor ZL798 [7.45]
Sonata No. 10 in A major ZL799 [4.35]
Sonata No. 11 in F minor ZL800 [6.19]
Sonata No. 12 in D major ZL801 [5.48]
The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. St. John’s Church, Loughton, 16-18 February 2015
VIVAT MUSIC 110 [76.59]

Purcell’s chamber music is not as well known as you might expect. Often recorded are the Fantasias of which there are three in five parts, nine in four parts and the Fantasia upon One note. There are also In Nomines. It is often said that much of this music was written almost as a didactic exercise by the teenage composer. Talented teenage composers are not that uncommon. No doubt we can all agree on Mozart and Mendelssohn but there is also Rued Langgaard whose huge First Symphony was completed by the time he was nineteen. Benjamin Britten was no slouch as a youngster and there are others. However, in Purcell’s case it is said he was just writing for his own amusement and learning.

Robert King in his excellent and stylish booklet notes tells us that these Sonatas were published by a 24 year old but must have been written over the previous few years. Anyway, Purcell took great care to make sure that the pieces were engraved at more than the usual expense and dedicated the publication to King Charles II stating that the works were “the immediate results of your majesties favours”. Purcell had been a boy in the Chapel Royal and the king had appointed him in 1677 as ‘composer-in-ordinary for the violins’. He was only eighteen and still singing in the choir.

Various influences were on the young man: William Lawes and Matthew Locke (d.1677) for example. The language of the former is especially felt in the C minor sonata but there was also Corelli whose Op. 1 Sonatas in three parts had only emerged in 1681. Purcell’s B flat major Sonata is especially Corellian in feel. Then there’s the French influence. Pelham Humphrey a fellow but older, Chapel Royal choirboy and composer, who was to die too young (d.1674), had been ‘Frenchified’. The Court was full of it. Henri du Mont’s works were known and Stephen Nau, a composer-violinist, arrived in London making quite a stir when Purcell was young. The final result is pure Purcell and each of these Sonatas is fascinating for that reason alone. It’s his use of chromaticisms, which is so personal and specific as in the moving F minor Sonata. His counterpoint is also remarkably mature. Robert King writes about each of the sonatas in turn in useful, slightly technical but perfectly readable language.

Some of you may have recordings by the Purcell Quartet on Chandos, the group including Catherine Mackintosh. These emerged in the late 1980s including on LP. I have volume 2, which has sonatas 8-14, with other pieces like the Sonatas in Four Parts of 1697. The Purcell Quartet is also, on the whole a little more leisurely in their interpretations.

Like Robert King’s group, old instruments and copies are used, but King has a chamber organ with a warmer tone I feel. It's a copy of a 17th century English instrument. Lynda Sayce uses a fourteen-string theorbo, a copy of an instrument of 1703; Richard Boothby in the Purcell Quartet plays a viola da gamba instead. Both groups also have two violins, in this case Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel.

The plan of each sonata is roughly similar although never identical. Each is allotted two tracks. The first generally begins with a Largo or an Adagio. This leads into an Allegro or more often a section called a ‘Canzona’ which in Purcell’s case is a faster, contrapuntal movement owing little to its Renaissance namesake. The second part might well be multi-tempoed (is that a word?). This begins Grave or Largo and moving into a dance-like final section - possibly a jig as in the B flat Sonata, but may well conclude with an 4-6 bar Adagio as in the final Sonata in D.

The Sonatas oscillate between minor and major and there is a schema of key relationships. This begins in G minor while the second sonata is in the relative major, B flat. For the third we lose a flat and are in D minor and the fourth is therefore in its relative major. Moving always a fourth lower (or fifth higher) we have the next one in A minor followed by the sixth in C major and so on. This scheme does allow as the penultimate sonata an obscure key for the period: F minor. The minor sonatas are correspondingly serious; the major ones, a light relief.

Clearly the Kings Consort understand and love these pieces; even a read of Robert King’s notes proves that point. I do not intend to find fault with their interpretations or indeed the recording, which has presence without being overpowering.

This CD is a follow-up to the same group’s recording of Purcell’s Sonatas in Four parts (Vivat 106). It comes in a cardboard package with a firmly fixed booklet that offers photographs and reproductions of Purcell’s original publication, the frontispiece and his dedication to the King.

Gary Higginson

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