Fears that Purcell's music would disappear in the Royal Albert Hall when played on period instruments and sung by church-trained voices were dispelled by Sunday's Prom, in which Robert King presided over his own Consort and Choir with the Choir of New College, Oxford, and a small army of soloists, all familiar from King's enormous series of CDs covering Purcell's complete vocal music outside the theatre.
The programme celebrated Purcell, the composer of church music, with three of his anthems and his Funeral Music for Queen Mary. It was also a commemoration, arranged as a sequence that moved from radiant happiness to the solemnity attached to death, a progression that was also reflected in two items not by Purcell, John Blow's intimate Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell and the much more public and dramatic ode, Come, come along by Purcell's younger contemporary, Jeremiah Clarke (he of the famous Trumpet Voluntary).
Genteel folk will, no doubt, persist in saying "Pur-cell", even though John Dryden wrote:
So ceased the rival crew when Purcell came
They sung no more, or only sung his fame.
- which could refer, partly, to the fact that John Blow, Purcell's teacher (though not very much his senior), stepped down from his job at Westminster Abbey in Purcell's favour.
Dryden's ode prompted Blow to write less anguished or pathos-ridden music than you might expect, given that Blow could be every bit as dissonant and daring as Purcell himself. But then he probably felt it inappropriate to show off, for Purcell was not only his pupil but a friend. The mood of his setting for two counter-tenors, recorders and group of continuo instruments is gentle and affectionate, and it was beautifully sung by Michael Chance and James Bowman, who in the opening duet warbled their florid ways upwards from a register normally considered too low for voices of their type.
Clarke was altogether in a different position. Come, come along was his first major composition, a chance for him to show his credentials in a large-scale dramatic work with an overture, solos, choruses and further instrumental numbers. It begins as a happy pastoral, which is clouded by Purcell's premature death, and in the brief instrumental piece just before the final chorus, two recorders plaintively hold a dissonant thread through the surrounding texture to magical effect. Ironically, Clarke died at an even earlier age than Purcell - it's thought that he committed suicide.
One thing the tercentenary year has done is to throw further light on Purcell's contemporaries, though this particular programme quite reasonably cast them in a lesser role. By Purcell himself it certainly picked some plums - to start, the exquisitely courtly anthem My Heart Is Inditing, written for James II's Coronation, and just before the interval, the brief but searing Hear My Prayer.
The procession of drums introducing and closing the Funeral Music set up an interesting heterophony of echoes in the hall, nor did I mind hearing a few accidents among the period trumpets - they made things real. The Choir of New College, Oxford, sounded in tip-top shape, with an incisive, firmly focused tone from the trebles. Among the excellent soloists, the lion's share went to the redoubtable treble Connor Burrowes, the counter- tenors James Bowman and Michael Chance, the tenor Rogers Covey-Crump and the bass Michael George.
From my seat, all could be heard adequately. In fact, in the second verse section of My Heart Is Inditing, the men overdid their bluster. Still, a touch of excess zeal here and there hardly marred a glorious tribute to - not England's greatest composer - but one of the most brilliant of its many great composers.
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