Purcell: Ode for St Cecilia’s Day: Hail, Bright Cecilia; Welcome to all the Pleasures

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Ode for St Cecilia’s Day: Hail, Bright Cecilia; Welcome to all the Pleasures
PERFORMER: Susan Hamilton, Siri Thornhill (soprano), Robin Blaze, Martin van der Zeijst (countertenor), Mark Padmore (tenor), Jonathan Arnold, Jonathan Brown, Peter Harvey (bass); Collegium Vocale Choir & Orchestra/Philippe Herreweghe
Philippe Herreweghe’s approach to Purcell’s two great Odes to St Cecilia can be thought of as Continental. His way is refined, the playing of the Collegium Vocale instrumentalists highly polished, full of colours, delicate, yet also with a solidness of sound and technique. The pace is briskish, yet each number seems to have plenty of space in which to weave its charms. And his team of singers is rather wonderful, though I wish the booklet had been more specific in telling us which singer was singing which air. It only gives us the type of voice (and even makes a mistake in that), but I am almost sure that it is the alto Robin Blaze and the baritone Peter Harvey who do such a wonderful job in the duet ‘Hark each tree’ near the beginning of the greater and later work, Hail, Bright Cecilia (1692). The way in which they waft the line ‘With leafy wings they flew’ would surely beguile the hardest of hearts. Meanwhile Mark Padmore, king of the haut-contres, is surely responsible for ‘Tis nature’s voice’, investing each syllable with poetic thought, making the most of dynamic contrasts, yet avoiding the sensation of affectation. It’s a stunning performance from him here and in the duet ‘In vain the am’rous flute’. The strongest rival in this work to my mind is the version by Robert King and The King’s Consort, which has perhaps less flair but shows a slightly deeper, even ingenuous, affection for the piece and uses an all-male choir (that of New College, Oxford). Herreweghe, however, has the edge for me, and furthermore makes a splendid case for the less ambitious 1683 Ode, Welcome to all the Pleasures, which still contains some wonderful things. Stephen Pettitt