Here is a CD consisting of nearly a dozen world première recordings of music from the period of Purcell by British contemporary, William Turner (1651-1740). Although it is often claimed that the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which effectively (re)imposed Protestant rule by a king ostensibly asked to stem the tide of wayward Catholicism, had the greater long term consequences for British society, there is no doubt that the Civil Wars of mid century were many times more turbulent and affected people's lives to the core. The Restoration (of the executed king Charles' son Charles II) in 1660 saw a determined and highly successful effort to re-invigorate musical life at court and in the country as a whole after a particularly barren period – one in which the British Isles virtually saw music making wrecked and long-established musical institutions, their traditions, momentum and expertises suppressed.
It's equally clear from contemporary accounts that, however difficult the rebuilding of what we might these days call the British Isles' musical "superstructure" (cathedral choirs, court musicians, music teaching, support for composers and performers etc.), it was tackled with enthusiasm and resourcefulness. And the "restoration" of musical life produced another "golden age" for British music. Purcell, of course, stands above all-comers. But he was not alone. Composers such as Child, Humfrey, Blow – and the less well known William Turner – found steady employment and success as they played their part. From the evidence of this CD, Turner wasn't the most exuberant of composers. His music lacks sustained jollity and the outward-looking flavor common to his French counterparts and on which Handel's grandeur was built.
Originally from Oxford, Turner moved first to London and then to take up the position of Master of the Choristers at Lincoln cathedral when he was only 16. By 1672 he was back in London with prominent positions at the Chapel Royal, St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey. When he was awarded a Doctorate of Music degree from Cambridge in 1696, the citation claimed that "only Purcell himself [was] more learned". Outliving other members of this generation, Turner didn't die until 1740.
Turner's output is correspondingly large, though there are only two other recordings of anything by him currently available; and no disc dedicated to the large amount of church music he wrote. One plausible explanation must be that critics have demurred at the composer's supposed lack of facility with words set… John Caldwell in "The Oxford History of English Church Music" (Vol. I) describes Turner's "capacity for vocal expression" as "somewhat limited". If faced with Purcell's undisputed ease with English, it's easy to accede to received opinion. What's more, Turner composed extensively neither for high voices in his choirs, nor – for that matter – predominantly for full choir. The chorus passages on this disc, though, are splendid and full of power and conviction. He also does have a gift in the way he matches his melody to turns of phrase. Just that it's neither spectacular, nor in any way boisterous.
In fact, Turner's music is fresh, original and persuasive. It will sound familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Purcell's anthems. Despite Turner's rhythmical and structural originality and a very individual set of stylistic marks (listen to the way he uses the trumpet in the "Te Deum", for example), and despite some adventurous harmonies and a finely-wrought palette of effects to support the fervor of his devotional approach to composition, his idiom necessarily invites comparison with that of Purcell. Turner's music is more rugged, somewhat less subtle; less florid and intricate than the other's; certainly less chromatic, more opaque.
The forces on the present disc excel in two particulars. In respecting Turner's always interesting dynamics: the impact of a piece like his "Lord, thou hast been my refuge", for example, depends on the contrasts between the subdued nature of the quiet, reflective passages and the almost strident uplift of the more joyous moments. The choir and soloists are finely attuned to these differences.
Similarly, the performers here are acutely sensitive to changes in tempi. Turner's rather undemonstrative style benefits from injections of vigor by highlighting places where the text demands or suggests greater pace, or stronger introspection. Here the choir and soloists respond without undue fuss. The opening of "The Queen shall rejoice" is a good example of their picking the music up and shaking it. Turner's is, at times, somber music – staid even… "Hear my Prayer, O Lord" seems to take supplication very literally. For some listeners, the lugubrious nature of the singing of the Gonville and Caius choir may come across as too tentative and somewhat muddily troubled, to reveal the confidence with which Turner writes. Perhaps they don't shake out quite all the wrinkles. In compensation the singing of those same high voices has a purity that's a delight.
If you have a fondness for the English Baroque, wish to explore the less brightly-lit corners of the last quarter of the seventeenth century or wish to see how composers of Blow's and Humfrey's generation extended those ideas originally developed by the likes of Gibbons and Tomkins, and indeed built on what Byrd established a couple of generations earlier, this will be a welcome disc. As a gentler contrast to Purcell's more intense sacred writing, Turner's has a lot to say. It's also a way to experience what "local" music-making in Restoration London and beyond must have sounded like. By careful listening you can sense how much more pedestrian (it has to be said) composers other than Purcell seem. And how well they nevertheless made the most of their opportunities. For that, this CD represents a good sampler. Turner's is not invariably stunning music. But there are many fine moments to which Webber's forces mostly live up.
The booklet accompanying this attractive CD is colorful, well-produced and has a useful introductory essay with notes about the music as well as its texts and short introductions to the performers. Delphian is a small, independent label based in Scotland. Originally formed to support music presented at the Edinburgh International Festival, it has broadened its repertoire and has a subscription scheme whereby members undertake to buy the entire back catalog for just over $5 a CD and at least half a dozen of the titles produced each year for a comparably economic amount. So it's all the more admirable that Delphian should look to a figure like Turner and do so well by him. Recommended.
Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey