MUSIC / A partial restoration

The King's Consort - Wigmore Hall, London
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The Wigmore Hall is almost the same size as the Chapel Royal in St James's Palace, and Robert King half-seriously boasted that the performances of Purcell's anthems he conducted on Thursday reproduced the conditions of their creation more accurate ly than ever before.

In the 17th century, it is believed, boys' voices broke much later than today, though who knows how much modern maturity compensates for our trebles' tender years. Eamonn O'Dwyer and David Nickless, till recently choristers at Westminster and St Paul's Cathedrals, are rather tougher, steadier than King himself sounded 20-odd years ago at St John's College, Cambridge, to judge by the recordings he made under George Guest.

The sweet and fragile tenderness, combined with the capacity for incisive attack that were the rare qualities of Guest's choir have not quite been achieved by King in his recent recordings of Purcell's complete anthems, though they are at least efficientand sometimes remarkable in their own way. Perhaps he actually seeks a stronger, plainer effect, which his slightly stiff conducting on Thursday suggested, and he has the advantage of recent refinements in period instrument performance, though there again, his Consort's playing, particularly the dynamic shading of the higher strings, often seemed unsubtle.

Still, the opening instrumental symphony of Rejoice in the Lord always tripped delicately and easily, and the violinist David Woodcock did some nice twiddles in the final ritomello. The anthem was crisply sung, too, though not with much expressive pointing of the words, "The peace of God which passeth all understanding", which came out matter-of-fact.

What no-one can deny is King's sterling work in making available to the listening public all of Purcell's anthems, and Thursday's programme included some that should have become better-known long ago. "It's a Good Thing to Give Thanks", for instance, is a model of Purcell's most sprightly Restoration style, with a deliciously courtly symphony, an impressively wide-ranging bass solo, and a final choral Alleluia.

Interspersed with anthems were devotional songs accompanied by a continuo group of theorbos, bass violin and chamber organ. James Bowman sang "How Long, Great God" with his characteristic relish and gusty tone production. Michael George had "Hosanna to the Highest" to himself until the spirited tenor Charles Daniels made his dramatic entry with the words: "Be ravish'd, earth, to see this contract driv'n "Twixt sinful men and reconcil'd heavn."

But Michael George had the most spectacular - and amusing - solo of all in the final, grandest anthem in the programme, `I will give thanks unto Thee, 0 Lord'. Evidently, Purcell wanted to give chattering courtiers something to talk about, and duly mustered a real display of vocal flexibility to illustrate, all too literally, the lines: "For though the Lord be high, / Yet hath he respect unto the lowly."

This exultant piece brought all the singers and players together, matching the anthem which had opened the evening and completing the programme's ingenious symmetry. But it was not the very last word; as an encore, the choir sang one of Purcell's most searing pieces, "Hear my prayer, O Lord". It stands as a sort of symbol of the composer's brief life and vast achievement, since it is only an unfinished fragment, yet seems complete and remains unsurpassably powerful as it is.