As it was, our guide, Penelope Lloyd, did the talking. She pointed out a memorial to Purcell's colleague William Congreve, and a plaque to one George Whicher, a fellow member of the Chapel Royal who joined in the composer's bawdy catches. She spoke of a ghost in Little Cloister, and showed us the Songschool where Purcell kept his music. And if most of the other monuments and the Abbey's towers are later additions, then so what. Lloyd's forte was atmosphere, which she conjured up like an illusionist.
David Johnson chose a more donnish mode for his velvet tour of Whitehall's Banqueting House. A skilled narrator, he artfully dwelt on the squalor of Stuart London the better to laud the delights of the building itself (interiors by Inigo Jones), saving till last the joy of the Rubens ceiling with James I engulfed by cherubs. No, he explained, the composer's excursions here were strictly off the record, but happened all the same. Nice one, David; but there goes Purcell, giving biographers the slip yet again.
And so to St Bride's, which the composer would certainly have visited for St Cecilia's Day Odes, though the present building is a phoenix risen from the ashes of war. In a touchy acoustic, eight conservatoire students hosted by suave Robert Spencer gave an hour of music for voices, recorders and viols that would doubtless have pleased the English Orpheus himself - not least for the sound of soprano Rachel Gilliam. Her wide-ranging vocal colours added lustre to duets with the more transparently toned Rachel Shannon, and sparkled in a Mad Song from Don Quixote.
Finally, to Stationers' Hall, and Robert King's witty tour round the Sonatas of Four Parts. The clue to Purcell, he suggested, was the poignant harmony mixing melancholy and desire. Quite so, as the suspended arches of melody in the last movement of the D minor Sonata made clear. Violinists David Woodcock and Walter Reiter drew a seamless web of compositional logic from the famous Chaconne, with its pre-echoes of Britten and Tippett.
Everywhere and nowhere, Purcell listened in from the 17th-century panelling and mocked the Victorian stained glass. But by now, spent from the demands of historical trekking, my search for the past in the present was confined purely to the music.
Nicholas WilliamsReuse content