On what’s thought to have been his 18th birthday, 10 September 1677, Henry Purcell’s first appointment to the court of Charles II was as composer-in-ordinary. Going on to become organist at Westminster Abbey and to the Chapel Royal, also serving James II and William and Mary, Purcell’s prolific composing career – cut tragically short, like that of Mozart – proved to be rather extraordinary.
In the context of Charles III’s recent accession to the throne, Harry Christophers’ concert with his Sixteen choir and orchestra, programming Welcome Songs and music written for the coronation of James II, was a timely lesson about musical culture in turbulent political times.
Purcell’s vocal music is most notable for his imaginative word-setting, so it was ironic that in the Bath Abbey acoustic, even with printed texts, words were often not discernible. But the accomplished sound of the eight voices – as in the Sixteen’s acclaimed Purcell recordings – carried beautifully and was more than matched by the instrumental playing. The intricacies of harmony and contrapuntal interweaving in the many interludes and postludes were totally beguiling, notably the chaconne ending What Greater Bliss, from the 1687 song Sound the Trumpet! Beat the Drum! Z335, written to welcome James II back from a vacation.
The pastoral coronation song While Thirsis, Wrapp’d In Downy Sleep, Z437, sung by soprano Katy Hill with sweet, pure tone, was followed by the short catch-song Full Bags, a Brisk Bottle, its boozy and jovial character offering amusing contrast to the sometimes sycophantic celebratory settings. The final welcome song Why, Why Are All the Muses Mute? allowed fine individual voices to be heard in successive verses, words now emerging clearly and all the more rewarding for it.
Over the MozartFest’s week, the K numbers of the Köchel catalogue are prominent and familiar; the Z numbers assigned by Franklin Zimmerman in his cataloguing of Purcell’s works are as yet unfamiliar, but his scholarship has been invaluable. Zimmerman is 99, so it’s perhaps not a moment too soon to salute him as well.