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Purcell odes ALPHA780
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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Royal Odes
From those serene and rapturous joys (Z 326) [18:54]
Fly, bold rebellion (Z 324) [17:14]
Why are all the Muses mute? (Z 343) [26:54]
Le Banquet Céleste/Damien Guillon
rec. 2021, Théâtre Auditorium, Poitiers, France
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
ALPHA 780 [63:22]

For most of his life, Henry Purcell was closely connected to the royal court. In 1677 he succeeded Matthew Locke as composer for the violins, and in 1682 he was admitted as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Between 1680 and his death he composed many pieces related to the monarchy: before the Glorious Revolution of 1685 he wrote Welcome Songs and three birthday Odes for James II, and after 1685 six Odes for the birthday of Queen Mary. The three works included in the disc under review date from 1683, 1684 and 1685.

Purcell's compositions of this kind are not that well-known, with some exceptions, such as Come ye sons of Art, away, the last Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary (1694). That is partly due to some solos, such as the famous duet 'Sound the trumpet' - a real evergreen - and the aria 'Strike the viol'. One reason of their relative neglect is that the historical context is unknown or does not appeal to a modern audience. Moreover, as their texts are second-rate - comparable with those of serenatas written by Italian composers - performers may not be very keen to pay much attention to them. However, this element may not have been of great concern to audiences and composers at the time. Robert King, who recorded the complete welcome songs and birthday odes for Hyperion, quotes the satirist Thomas Brown, who wrote: "For where the Author's scanty words have failed, your happier graces, Purcell, have prevailed". If one listens to these works, one can only agree. Purcell was able to create some wonderful music from these "scanty words".

Welcome songs were written at the occasion of the King's return to the Palace of Whitehall, the centre of government, from the countryside, where the royal family had spent the summer months. One of these is From those serene and rapturous joys, the fifth welcome song for Charles II, which was performed at 25 September 1684. The text was written by Thomas Flatman, a poet and painter of miniatures, who was a great admirer of Charles. In Purcell's music both French and Italian influences can be found. The former is especially present in the opening symphonies of his songs and odes, as is the case here. The first section then refers to the "serene and rapturous joys" of the countryside, and the next mention that "men and Angels bid him [the King] welcome home". The fifth section refers to the Restoration of 1660: the King does not appear with trophies from a "bloody war" but with an olive branch. In a solo for tenor, 'Welcome, more welcome does he come' Purcell makes use of a ground bass, as he did so often in his oeuvre. In the closing section the text speaks about "trumpets and shouts" and about thunder, but Purcell never uses the winds one would expect here. He rather confines himself here, as in the other pieces included here, to a small string band.

One year earlier Purcell wrote Fly, bold rebellion, "The Welcome Song perform'd to his Majesty in the year 1683". The anonymous author refers to an event that had shocked the nation: the Rye House Plot of June 1683. It was a plan to assassinate Charles II and his brother - heir to the throne - James, Duke of York. "The royal party went from Westminster to Newmarket to see horse races and were expected to make the return journey on 1 April 1683, but because there was a major fire in Newmarket on 22 March (which destroyed half the town), the races were cancelled, and the King and the Duke returned to London early. As a result, the planned attack never took place" (Wikipedia). The whole work refers to this event. The opening section, a solo for bass, says: "Fly, bold rebellion, make baste and be gone! Victorious in counsel great charles is returned, the plot is displayed and the traitors, some flown and some to avernus by justice thrown down." At the end Purcell again turns to the device of the ground bass in 'Be welcome, then, great sir'.

In February 1685 Charles II died, and as he had no son to succeed him, it was his brother James who was crowned as King James II. He had converted to Catholicism before 1670, and this resulted in much tension between him and the Protestant nobility. This came to an end in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Dutch invaded England, and James's daughter Mary, became Queen, with her husband William III of Orange, the Dutch stadholder, at her side. Why are all the muses mute? is the first Welcome Song Purcell wrote for James II. It was performed on 14 October 1685 at Whitehall. It refers once again to a failed attempt to overthrow the King, the so-called Monmouth Rebellion. The Duke of Monmouth, living in self-imposed exile in the Dutch Republic, landed in June 1685 in England and collected an army which was defeated the next month. The work begins with a solo for tenor, whose text expresses the state of the time: "Why are all the muses mute? Why sleeps the viol and the lute?" This leads to a chorus: "Awake, 'tis Caesar does inspire and animates the vocal quire [choir]". Then we hear the usual symphony in French style. The solo for alto, 'Britain, thou now art great' is again based on a ground bass. The bass solo 'Accursed rebellion reared his head' is a belligerent piece and technically demanding, as its range spans more than two octaves. The work ends with an extended solo for alto, "O how blest is the isle to which Caesar is given which turns into the chorus.

It is remarkable that a non-English ensemble devotes itself to this very English repertoire, and with good effect. Only the two tenors are English speakers, but - as far as I can tell - the English pronunciation of all the singers is remarkably good. Obviously it is a bit too much to ask them to use a historical pronunciation; even British ensembles mostly ignore this aspect of historical performance practice. As I already wrote, Purcell confines himself to a small string band, and the line-up here - two violins, violas and basso continuo - may well be in line with Purcell's own performance practice. There is one issue here, however: the participation of a cello and a double bass is questionable. According to Peter Holman, both instruments were not known in England before the 1690s. Before that time, it was mostly the bass violin that was used as string bass.

The vocal ensemble seems also be in accordance with Purcell's practice: Robert King states that the Odes and Welcome Songs were usually performed in rather intimate surroundings by not more than a double quartet of singers. And that is exactly what we have here. There is some debate about the middle voices: these are sometimes sung by a male alto, but also by a high tenor, comparable with the French haute-contre. The last solo in Why, why are all the Muses mute is sung here by the alto Damien Guillon, whereas in King's recording it is performed by the high tenor Mark Padmore. It is probably hard to decide what is correct, but if it is sung as well as here by Guillon, I am not complaining, regardless. His colleagues are of the same level. Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian, Guillon's fellow alto, has a lovely voice, as he demonstrates, for instance, in 'Britain, thou now art great' (Z 343). There is a clear difference between the two lowest voices, and that difference is explored to good effect. Nicolas Brooymans, the lower of the two, delivers an excellent performance of 'Accursed rebellion' in the same Welcome Song. Now and then I noted a little too much vibrato in especially the sopranos, but it hardly matters.

This is a very fine recording of three pieces by Purcell that are not as well known as they deserve to be. This is wonderful music, and Le Banquet Céleste is its eloquent advocate.

Johan van Veen

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