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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) My Heart is Inditing, Z30 [18:37] O Sing unto the Lord, Z44 [12:33] Rejoice in the Lord Always, Z49 [8:51]
Voluntary in D minor, Z719] [5:49] Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem, Z46 [8:01] My Beloved Spake, Z28 [10:49]
Paul Plummer (organ)
Choir of New College Oxford, The Band of Instruments/Edward Higginbottom
rec. Chapel of New College Oxford, 2-3 September 1995 CRD 3504 [65:17]
This is a most distinguished disc presenting five of Purcell’s verse anthems and one of his three surviving works for solo organ in performances which are high on stylistic awareness and musical authority. Edward Higginbottom is an instinctive interpreter of this area of the repertory and he draws some crisp, clean and elegant singing from his Oxford choristers. The Band of Instruments comprises, for this recording, three members of the renowned Fitzwilliam Quartet (Lucy Russell, Jonathan Sparey and Alan George) whose work in early music on disc has attracted considerable respect in recent years, plus the noted gamba player Joanna Levine. With such musicians thoroughly versed in the practice of period instrument performance and interpretation of early music, it is little surprise that this disc has such an air of authority about it. On top of that it was recorded during the Purcell tercentenary year when these performers were obviously utterly immersed in this music and could treat its performance almost as almost second nature.
The question needs to be asked, however; is a group of four string players and an organist sufficient to match the demands of music which was originally written to be accompanied by the “King’s 24 Violins”, a performing ensemble put together after the Restoration by Charles II in imitation of the “24 Violons du Roi” he had experienced while in exile at the court of Louis XIV? The answer is, sadly, no, and what some of these performances lack is the opulence, stature and sheer drama which Purcell wrote into them; not least the coronation anthems My Heart is Inditing (for James II in 1685) and Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem (for William and Mary in 1689). In particular, the final verse setting of the first of these feels awkwardly exposed.
The small instrumental ensemble is far better suited to O Sing unto the Lord, one of Purcell’s most Italianate anthems and one apparently composed in 1688 for reduced forces in order to highlight the “stupendous base” voice of John Gostling. Whether the bass soloist on this recording – Clive Letchford – has the same resonance and bulk of tone contemporary reports suggest was in the gift of Gostling I cannot tell: Gostling, nine years Purcell’s senior, died in 1733 at the remarkable age of 83. But Letchford’s is quite a light and elegant voice, more a part of the choral fabric than standing out demonstratively on its own. Nevertheless the beautifully fluffy and buoyant singing gives this anthem a lovely feeling of freshness.
One word sums up Higginbottom’s approach to this repertory, and that is lightness. Rhythms are given great buoyancy, musical phrases have a pleasing lift and bass lines, notably the bell-like scales underpinning the instrumental interjections in Rejoice in the Lord Alway, float along almost weightlessly. This lightness of touch is enhanced by well-chosen tempi which neither push the music along too briskly nor dwell too heavily over the more magnificent moments, while those characteristic false relations collide and move on with little lasting impact. For my money the most rewarding performance on the disc is My Beloved Spake where the verse trio (Stephen Taylor, Philip Cave and Eammon Dougan) seems to be having an absolute ball with the famously sensuous text from the Song of Solomon,while Higginbottom’s deftness of touch ensures the abrupt changes of mood and tempo flit by with all the charming flightiness of a flock of swifts.
Purcell’s organ music has not been passed down to us in any great quantities; a result, according to Mark Humphreys’ somewhat uneven booklet notes, of the practice of improvising voluntaries rather than writing them down. But among those which have survived in its original version is the D minor Voluntary for the Double Organ which Paul Plummer performs according to the original score, complete with precise realisation of Purcell’s extremely detailed ornamentation; a style of ornamenting radically different from that of both Purcell’s French and German counterparts and one which, for those unaccustomed to it, can sound almost clumsy. He has also tried hard to create some feel for the sound world of Purcell’s time through his registration. But despite all this, the performance rather lacks the elegance and easy fluency of the choral items which make this disc so distinguished.