Without apology, the review that follows will be an unreserved rave! Essential Purcell is a sampler of selections from Hyperion Records’ comprehensive survey of the works of Henry Purcell. Purcell’s music, much of it hitherto unknown to me, makes an indelible impression as he casts spell after spell in the popular and religious musical forms of the 17th century. I believe the music is essential listening whether secular or devotional. With quality such as this, it is no wonder Purcell was a star of the compositional firmament during the Restoration.
Inspired by wonderful conducting from founder Robert King, the King’s Consort amaze at their ability to convey the technical brilliance and intense emotion of the music. Performances like these cement Purcell’s place as the greatest of all English composers. Seldom does one find a CD of unquestionably brilliant artistic quality. Luckily, this is just the beginning of what may be a wonderful journey of musical discovery. There are, according to Hyperion’s terrific website (www.hyperion-records.co.uk), twenty-nine CD’s in the Purcell series. A real treasure chest.
The King’s Consort is a gathering of some of England’s finest early music specialists. King directs his vocal and instrumental forces with the utmost authority and sensibility, and with deep respect for his musical tasks. All twenty selections are performed with great consistency - by ignoring the marvelously researched notes, one could be fooled into thinking the various soloists and ensembles were recorded at the same time and location! Singularly, each selection is fulfilling, or they may all be enjoyed as a complete musical experience. Mr. King has taken great care in choosing the repertoire and has whetted my appetite to explore the music further.
Where to begin? Any track will serve notice about the delights contained within, however, there are several great moments that might serve as an appetizer before consumption of all seventy-nine minutes. Anthems, the great musical staple of the Church of England, are well represented. Hear My Prayer O Lord, arguably Purcell’s greatest, dates from 1680. Written in six-part harmony, the anthem is beautifully crafted, using a three-minute crescendo to lead the listener to an emotionally shattering close. The setup of the discord in the penultimate bar smacks of true genius. Along the way, the listener is treated to superb word-painting, indicative of Purcell’s wonderful choice of text. The sophistication and technical brilliance with which this music is composed still leaves me humbled after experiencing it many times. Truly heartbreaking.
If, by introduction, a slightly less intense experience is warranted, listen to The Sparrow and the Gentle Dove. It is sung resplendently by Charles Daniels and is a prime example of Purcell’s wonderful melodic style. Written over a ground bass, the melody weaves its magic through Daniel’s beautiful tenor voice and ends, surprisingly, with a ritornello in the strings. This one is a real treat.
The introductory “welcoming” songs are exercises in beauty and betray their genesis as music for happy occasions. The first, Welcome glorious morn, displays rhythmic interplay between orchestral and vocal forces. Another wonderful tenor, Rogers Covey-Crump (what a great name), sings the “welcome” most invitingly. In Be welcome then, great sir, the audience gets a chance to hear one of the finest of counter-tenors, James Bowman. Superb performances can also be found in more famous repertoire, such as Dido’s Lament, If Music be the Food of Love and Hail Bright Cecila.
The recordings are natural and view the music in the perspective of the genre. Soloists are not spotlighted, but are placed slightly forward of the main forces as you would find in a live performance. While listening to the spontaneity of all the musicians, I was reminded of the excitement of a live event. All areas of the sound spectrum are presented clearly and are seamless in blend. Bass sound is secure, however, with the gentle nature of early instruments, the volume will not rock the foundations. Looking on the back cover, one discovers only three producers for the twenty nine CD’s of the complete set! Forces in front and behind the microphones have demonstrated great expertise leading to the incredible consistency of both recording and performances.
Essential Purcell delivers exactly what it suggests, with performances of scholarship, technical brilliance and, above all, supreme musicality. Robert King, and Ted Perry (Managing Director of Hyperion Records) are to be congratulated, and, more importantly, encouraged. Through their considerable efforts, they have promoted the wonderful music of Henry Purcell like no other record company.
As a duty to the performers and our readers, reviewers from Audiophilia Online Magazine listen to a recording many times. Rarely does one find a disc as exemplary as this. Joy, exultation, and tears will help to prolong the effects of these great performances long after the final chords have died away. This is essential repertoire heard through an essential recording and is very highly recommended.
Hyperion King 2 (DDD)
Playing time 79:14