Review: "A Purcell Collection"

06.14.14
VOCES8
Music Web International

By Johan van Veen

Henry Purcell is not exactly what musicologists sometimes call a 'minor master'. On the contrary, his music is almost unanimously admired and frequently performed and recorded. In his liner-notes Patrick Ayrton rightly compares him with Johann Sebastian Bach, and one could add some other composers of the same stature, such as Monteverdi or Charpentier. A critic once said that he had never heard a bad note from Purcell, and it is not difficult to agree. That makes a disc like the present one a little superfluous. The rear inlay says that it is "an invitation to stroll through the world of one of England's greatest composers". Is that really necessary, considering Purcell’s sizeable discography?

In a concept like this it is inevitable that several excerpts from larger pieces are included. I have to admit that I don't like this. The isolation of single pieces from a larger work is often unsatisfactory. This disc includes a particularly telling example: the 'Cold Song' from King Arthur. It is quite effective if performed as part of the whole, but without its context it makes much less sense. Moreover, if performances are good - as these are - one is disappointed not to hear the whole piece.

One of the highlights is My heart is inditing, amongst his best-known compositions, and a masterpiece. The opening sinfonia bears witness to the French influence: the slow first section with its dotted rhythms reminds us of the overtures from Lully's operas, when the king entered the theatre. This connection makes much sense as this anthem was written for the coronation of James II in 1685. Here we hear the instrumental ensemble Les Inventions in its full glory. Voces8 gives a very fine performance of the vocal parts. The voices blend beautifully, and thanks to the minimal vibrato the harmonic peculiarities come off perfectly. It also results in a high degree of transparency. The solo episodes are nicely sung.

Some of them show their qualities in the solo pieces: Barnaby Smith is especially impressive in 'Strike the viol', although the tempo of this song is probably a little too fast. Andrea Haines makes the best of 'Fairest Isle', one of Purcell's most famous airs, and often sung as an encore. Over the years I have heard many disappointing or even horrible performances, marred by wide vibrato. Ms Haines' performance has a kind of naïveté which is spot-on. The ritornello between the first and the second stanza is another highlight, especially thanks to the beautiful ornamentation of first violinist Shunske Sato. Dingle Yandell does well in the 'Cold Song', but I wonder whether the interpretation is a shade too emphatic. Maybe a more restrained and subtle approach would make a stronger impression. However, as I indicated above, it is not easy to perform such a piece out of its context.

The funeral anthem Thou knowest, Lord is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces ever written. It is interesting that it is performed here as the last part of the Burial Music by Thomas Morley. Purcell's anthem replaces the missing last section. It remains pretty close to the style of Morley, but Purcell adds his own mark in his treatment of harmony. Voces8 shows that it is well suited to earlier music as Morley's setting gets a very good performance. Purcell's motet makes a lasting impression in this performance.


Even if you have most of Purcell's music on disc in your collection you should not miss this 'sampler'. It includes some of the finest performances I have heard in recent years. I strongly hope that these two ensembles will further delve into Purcell's oeuvre and make us happy with more recordings. Even though I don't like performances of excerpts from larger works, the quality of this disc make me nominate it as Recording of the Month.