Music for the Royal Court: Henry Purcell

Purcell
Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day: Hail Bright Cecilia
O dive custos Auricae domus
Bess of Bedlam: From silent shades and Elysian fields
Lost is my quiet forever
Birthday Ode for Queen Mary: Come ye sons of Art, away

Monteverdi Choir
Consort Soloists from the Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
Sir John Eliot Gardiner


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 13 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert combined Gardiner’s ability to clearly enunciate underlying rhetorical structures with Purcell’s gift for painting the emotional registers of the texts to produce a memorable musical experience. The programme moved swiftly from the startlingly variegated “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” of 1692, through three works whose small scale belied their expressive range, to the justly celebrated birthday ode for Queen Mary of 1694 (the year of her death). Gardiner’s commitment to providing young singers with high-profile performing opportunities is well known; thus there were many fresh voices to be heard during, all of which were a delight.

Any objectivity I had hoped to retain was rapidly broken down by the charm and sweet persuasiveness of Gardiner’s approach to Hail Bright Cecilia. This was a truly remarkable performance, with as much opportunity being taken to project the text, with its rich musical allusions, as Purcell himself took when setting it. The careful dynamic gradations in the echoing phrases and the delicately handled chromatic passages of the opening ‘symphony’ provided a perfect platform for bass Michael Bundy to launch the laudatory eponymous chorus. The following arias, duets, consort songs and choruses, which trace the poetic argument from music arising out of Nature herself, the supremacy of the organ above all other instruments, and the ultimate triumph of harmony, were all performed with equal conviction. Pick of the soloists were high-tenor Jeremy Budd, the aforementioned Michael Bundy and alto Iestyn Davies; of the instrumentalists, the continuo section really excelled, with Paula Chateauneuf on theorbo and guitar chief amongst them for sheer artistry.

Three small-scale works followed. First was a lament for the dead Queen Mary, “O dives custos Auricae domus” (O sacred guardian of the house of Orange), sung with great style and propriety by sopranos Elin Manahan Thomas and Charlotte Mobbs. Second was Purcell’s first and finest foray into the ‘mad song’ genre, and here soprano Katharine Fuge carefully delineated the contrasts between narrative recitative and poignant declamation with great skill to effect a performance both comic and tragic. Third came a charming duet sung by soprano Grace Davidson and tenor Andrew Tortise, “Lost is my quiet forever”.

“Come, ye sons of Art, away” swept us back into the grander world of the royal-birthday ode, and here Gardiner let fly with his penchant for double-dotting and prominently-phrased vocal lines in the choruses. After the opening ‘symphony’ and ‘chorus’ came the ubiquitous “Sound the trumpet” sung with dazzling virtuosity and a real sense of joy by altos Iestyn Davies and Richard Wyn Roberts. Another ‘symphony’ and ‘chorus’ served to introduce a beautifully rendered “Strike the viol”, in which Iestyn Davies was accompanied by two recorders, bassoon and theorbo to great effect. A sinuous “The day that such a blessing gave”, a scintillating “Bid the Virtues” and a jaunty “These are the sacred charms” led into the final duet and chorus “See nature rejoicing”, which was performed with gusto.

Much applause led to an encore, which was, you’ve guessed it: “Sound the trumpets”.

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