WORKS: Complete Odes and Welcome Songs
PERFORMER: Various soloists ; Choir of New College, Oxford, King’s Consort/ Robert King
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 44031/8
It’s extraordinary that England’s greatest composer is only now beginning to be adequately represented on record. Robert King, the King’s Consort, a superb solo team – and Hyperion – began this collection in 1988 and all 24 of the Odes and Welcome Songs were completed on eight discs last year.
The performances are the very best of period practice – scholarly and authentic in scale and style, unfailingly warm and persuasive in spirit. It is almost invidious to highlight soloists individually, but Rogers Covey-Crump’s high tenor makes striking sense of those frustrating parts which so long seemed too high for traditional tenors and too low for male altos; Gillian Fisher and Tessa Bonner are a particularly attractive pair of duetting sopranos.
The choir of New College, Oxford, sings the choruses in the two large-scale Odes, very grand and very English – Hail! Bright Cecilia and Come Ye Sons of Art. Elsewhere an ensemble of soloists reflects the scale of Purcell’s original forces.
Where longer projects have suffered from rising performing standards – Teldec’s earlier Bach cantata recordings now show their age, for example – over this four-year span the first disc is no less fresh than the last. Nor has the enterprise been overtaken by competition, with two-thirds of these pieces unavailable elsewhere. They are an unparalleled, unique union of 17th-century Italian modernism, the archaic harmonic daring of an earlier English tradition, and a choral technique without which Handel would not have ‘invented’ the dramatic oratorio. At times all three influences follow each other without pause. In Love’s Goddess Sure was Blind (Vol. 6) the duet ‘Many, Many such Days’, brilliantly crafted over the simplest of ground basses, gives way to a Handelian chorus of extraordinary contrapuntal imagination, turning to inimitable pathos at the mere thought of mourning the future death of the Queen whose birthday the Ode celebrates.
The discs are available separately. Yet every one is such a treasure-house of shamefully neglected music – over nine hours of wonderful invention from ‘the divine Purcell’ – that the whole set of this major recording achievement must be an irresistible temptation. George Pratt