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The best recordings of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

The origins of Purcell’s sombre Funeral Music for Queen Mary are shrouded in uncertainty, but that hasn’t hindered a fine crop of recordings. Andrew Stewart picks the finest

Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary best recordings
Published: June 4, 2022 at 7:00 am
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Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, like Albinoni’s Adagio and Allegri’s Miserere, belongs to the category of old compositions shaped by modern hands. The scholar Bruce Wood suggests that the piece as generally performed, a compilation of early and late Purcell, is ‘thoroughly bogus’

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. His verdict will sound harsh to those moved by its mix of music for solemn brass and choral settings of the Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer. Yet Wood, after considering opaque reports of Queen Mary’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey on 5 March 1695 and flimsy evidence for the music performed during it, attaches a long list of questions to the work. We know that the March and Canzona were heard by mourners at the funeral, for which Purcell wrote his second setting of Thou knowest, Lord. The rest of the resplendent service’s musical contents remains open to debate.

The best recordings of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier

(2012)

Ricercar RIC332

WORK ON THE CHURCH of Saint-Jean Baptiste in Belgium began six years after Queen Mary’s burial. The building’s sacred space – more intimate than Westminster Abbey – and the clear yet warm sound caught within its acoustics contribute to the intense atmosphere of Lionel Meunier’s recording of the Queen’s funeral music. Meunier creates a convincing survey of works performed on the occasion, embracing Wood’s research and placing Purcell’s funeral music for Queen Mary within the context of pieces associated with earlier English royal funerals. Vox Luminis follow their conductor’s unsentimental lead, sparing in their use of vibrato and eternally wedded to immaculate intonation and articulation. Their unmannered singing allows the harmonic tensions and surface colours of Purcell’s second setting of Thou knowest, Lord to emerge naturally; the addition of four ‘flatt’ or slide trumpets magnifies the anthem’s expressive power. Farewell Marches by James Paisible and Thomas Tollett are used to evoke the procession of ‘the Queen’s chariot’, a purpose-built hearse, from Whitehall to the Abbey, with Purcell’s March serving as bridge to the funeral service proper. Meunier and his musicians travel far beyond the bounds of studio recording to forge a strong impression of the ritual surrounding a royal burial.

Choir of the King’s Consort; Choir of New College, Oxford

The King’s Consort/ Robert King (1993)

Hyperion CDA 66677

Boy trebles, a quartet of slide trumpets, a crack team of adult male voices and shrewdly judged speeds add to the appeal of Robert King’s recording, part of his set of Purcell’s complete sacred music for Hyperion. King brackets the composer’s three early Funeral Sentences together with his final setting of Thou knowest, Lord, framing the four choral pieces with the March and Canzona and two long drum marches. He opens Man that is born of woman with a solo quartet, a strategy repaid by fine singing and a degree of textural transparency suited to words about life’s brief span and mankind’s misery. Best of all is the revised version of Purcell’s first setting of Thou knowest, sung with great tenderness and graced by exquisite recorded sound.

Westminster Abbey Choir

New London Consort/ Martin Neary (1995)

Sony Classical SK66243

Martin Neary and Westminster Abbey Choir, aided and abetted by the New London Consort, marked the tercentenary of Purcell’s death with this recording, a majestic album of the composer’s music for Queen Mary in life and in death. The Funeral Music opens here with Wood’s transcription of the ‘Old English March’ in procession through Westminster Abbey’s reverberant interior, then in company with the windband marches of Tollet and Paisible and Purcell’s Funeral March. For sense of place, history, and grandeur, nothing beats Neary’s recording. His choir are on peak form in Morley’s Funeral Sentences but hindered by indistinct recorded sound. The Canzona’s deliberate tread, articulated with the care of cat burglars negotiating trip wires, loses its initial appeal with repeated listening.

The Sixteen

Orchestra of the Sixteen/Harry Christophers (2004)

Coro COR16024

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In The Sixteen’s recording of ‘the complete funeral music for Queen Mary’, Harry Christophers strikes a fine balance between solemnity and energy, propelling the energy of the processional marches of Paisible, Tollet and Purcell into Morley’s Funeral Sentences. The album has a warm and smooth edged recorded sound, in which every word registers cleanly, every voice part counts. While some may favour slower speeds for the anthems, the urgent momentum of Christophers’s readings draws attention to the beating pulse of life within death. His subtle changes of tempo between pieces arise from the content of their texts and from a sense of the ritual drama embedded within the Order of Service at the Burial of the Dead.

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