Purcell: Harmonia Sacra: Sacred Songs and Instrumental Pieces

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COMPOSERS: Purcell
LABELS: Archiv
WORKS: Harmonia Sacra: Sacred Songs and Instrumental Pieces
PERFORMER: Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
CATALOGUE NO: 445 829-2 DDD
Harmonia Sacra represents a profoundly sombre Purcell, a music draped in black. The Archiv disc takes its title from a 1688 anthology that included several of the pieces here. These devotional songs – settings for one to four voices and continuo of religious poems – represent the private side of Purcell’s sacred music, being composed for domestic rather than church or performances.

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Many songs on this disc are penitential in theme and lugubrious in pace; a title such as ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’ indicates the general mood of claustrophobic darkness. There is some superb vocal writing, and superb performances that perfectly convey the devotional impulse of the music, but the unremitting gravity of tone makes this a disc I cannot imagine wanting to hear often. Exceptions are the beautiful, and secular, ‘O solitude’, the thrillingly dramatic ‘In guilty night’ and George Herbert’s riveting elegy ‘With sick and famish’d eyes’.

The Oxford Camerata explores a different, more public, facet of Purcell’s sacred music, the full anthems for choir and organ (‘full’ as opposed to ‘verse’ anthems, which include sections for solo voice). There is also a sequence of pieces titled – inaccurately – ‘Music on the Death of Queen Mary’, which incorporates Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, the famous ‘March and Canzona’ and the solo elegy ‘Incassum, Lesbia’. The choral singing is often impressive, but the King’s Consort (Hyperion) remains peerless in this repertoire.

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Tragicomedia’s Songs of Welcome and Farewell lightens the mood with a curious mixture of material. ‘Why, why are all the Muses mute?’ is one of Purcell’s finest welcome songs, but ‘Welcome, vicegerent of the mighty king’ was the first, and possibly least inspired, that he wrote. Similarly, the lovelorn ‘Plaint’ makes a strange farewell song to set beside the two moving Latin elegies for Queen Mary. Still, a well-performed and engaging set. Graham Lock