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Pelham HUMPHREY (1647/1648-1674)
Sacred Choral Music
Alexander Chance (counter-tenor), Nicholas Mulry (tenor), Nick Prichard (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass)
Bojan Cicic, Elin White (violin), Jane Rogers (viola), Sarah McMahon (cello), Alex McCartney (theorbo), Martyn Noble (organ)
The Choir of Her Majesty’s Chapel Royal, St. James’s Place/Joseph McHardy (organ)
rec. 27-29 January 2020, HM Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, London
DELPHIAN DCD34237 [59:02]

Religious music had been suppressed in Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. At the Restoration, it become imperative to re-establish the traditions but there was no question of reviving the old polyphonic style, largely because the King’s taste ran against it. So, Pelham Humphrey – whose music was already often performed even if he was still a very young man – received a Royal grant to study in Italy and France. On his return, he was to take over at the Chapels Royal from his teacher Henry Cooke, known as Captain Cooke (ca. 1616-1672). That is the background of the verse anthems and service music on this disc; the Choir of the Chapel Royal performed in something like the building where it was first heard, although the chapel in Whitehall, the actual first venue, no longer exists. At any rate, the balance and the number of musicians are as Humphrey would have expected for his often limited space. Notably, Lully’s orchestra could well have been larger.

Humphrey and John Blow also contributed to the development of Henry Purcell’s talent. That was another Chapel Royal boy who went on to be its master, and to write verse anthems and other sacred works. Clearly, his pieces in most ways superseded his teachers’ music. Even so, Humphrey’s music has a style of its own, and thanks to this fascinating disc we can begin to understand that style better.

The music centres on the Morning and Evening services in E minor: the Te Deum and Jubilate followed by the rather succinct Mass setting (prayer book words in English, of course) omitting the Benedictus and Agnus dei, and then by a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. The latter two may occasionally be encountered in a cathedral evensong. These sections are surrounded by the three long anthems.

What might immediately strike us is the very first piece, the anthem O give thanks unto the Lord with words from Psalm 118. The solo lines are incredibly ornamented. Conductor Joseph McHardy’s evocative booklet notes set out the thinking behind this. He reminds us that the Italy which Humphrey visited was full of opera – consider Caccini and Monteverdi. He also notes that this is part of his own musical background: he chose soloists with expertise in how to ornament these lines appropriately, and he studied Purcell’s florid vocal music. It need not mean that the listener will feel entirely comfortable with this method of performance. There is also the pleasing use of strings and continuo, which Humphrey derived from attending worship at the court of Louis XIV; they not only accompany but have some interludes of their own in the anthems, breaking up the verses.

Humphrey was appointed to the Chapel Royal in 1672 but died two years later. One feels that his talent was unfulfilled, yet this music represents the brave new world of the English Baroque. One imagines his meeting, possibly in a live performance, with Monteverdi’s dramatic late madrigals, and then with the French sacred works of Lully. He synthesised those with the more austere English polyphony to create his unique style.

The anthem By the Waters of Babylon exemplifies some of this drama. The soloists repeatedly cry “How, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” over some very complex harmonies. It is not just the soloists who have the fun; the boys join in too. Humphrey employs “the children of the Chapel Royal to cry vengeance against the children of Babylon” (a second booklet essay by Corinna Connor) in their strong entry towards the end. Another example is heard in the setting of O Lord my God, to the words from Psalm 22. It begins with text quoted by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion: “why has thou forsaken”. This is heard as a personalised drama by giving the words to the solo bass in extremely expressive writing, echoed by the two tenors in their highest ranges. Similar part writing, often quite chromatic, is found in the verse “They pierced my hands and feet”. One can easily see how Purcell came out of this world., with such emotional and emotionally charged anthems as Thou know’st Lord.

The booklet comes with full texts, the two essays and colour photographs of the sessions. It is disappointing that the disc runs for less than an hour when other works might have been included. It is, however, thoughtfully planned. The whole venture is a very impressive achievement by all concerned, an eye-opener which lets us into this rather precious and particular world.

Gary Higginson

O give thanks unto the Lord [11:13]
Service in E minor:
  Te Deum [4:54]
  Jubilate [2:11]
  Kyrie [0:59]
  Credo [3:39]
  Sanctus [0:42]
  Gloria [2:21]
By the Waters of Babylon [13:03]
Service in E minor:
  Magnificat [4:01]
  Nunc Dimittis [2:36]
O Lord my God [13:17]

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