On this the three hundredth anniversary of Henry Purcell's death, it is not surprising that record companies are releasing his music in large quantities. As an introduction to the work of this master composer, this new Harmonia Mundi boxed set hits the mark perfectly. While admittedly missing "Come ye Sons of Art" and curiously including organ voluntaries by contemporaries John Blow and Matthew Locke, the contents of this set are fairly representative. On Music for a While, Countertenor Alfred Deller sings songs like "I attempt from Love's sickness" using the most melancholic of tones. However, don't expect the lively pyrotechnics of a Mozart aria. This music, accompanied by harpsichord, bass viol, and violin, hearkens back to an earlier, statelier time, when the agony of love was more controlled, when the poetry openly competed with the melody.
Dido and Aeneas is one of Purcell's most beautiful operas and Les Arts Florissants, under the direction of William Christie, deliver a faithful performance. Listening to this opera, with its spirited choruses, impassioned solos, and stirring ensembles demonstrates why the high baroque era was known more for vocal than instrumental pieces.
Yet even the instrumental works blossom in this collection. The volume entitled Chamber Music, expertly performed by the London Baroque, presents a delectable selection of Purcell's pavans, sonatas, suites, and overtures. The moods vary from sprightly to somber. The players capture the period perfectly and play these pieces more contemplatively than the cheery baroque wakeup music we're accustomed to hearing on classical record stations. I would have liked to have heard a few of his fantasias for the viols, but you can't expect everything.
The collection also includes excerpts from the semi-opera King Arthur, with lusty performances of drinking songs and the splendid "St George, the Patron of our Isle." Alas, no libretto. The Funeral Sentences (for Queen Mary) volume include this and other anthems, such as the stolid "Rejoice in the Lord alway" and the quaint "My heart is inditing." Collegium Vocale admirably performs this sampling of Purcell's sacred music. I wish they'd been in my church choir when I was growing up. The weakest volume is the Organ Works. This is perhaps because I prefer Purcell's livelier organ transcriptions to the somber voluntaries; however, I admit both are representative of his output.
If you have little of Purcell's splendid music, this boxed set is a fine place to start.
Copyright © 1996, Peter Bates