Given the excellence of the music tucked away in Henry Purcell’s Royal Welcome Songs – those majestical, if frequently fawning eulogies on the Stuart monarchy – it seems remarkable that The Sixteen’s series represents only the second time an ensemble has attempted a proper survey. Robert King’s excellent Hyperion accounts, which include Purcell’s various extended Odes, are rightly benchmarks here, but Harry Christophers’ adroit programming, which frames the Welcome Songs with appropriately themed or contemporaneous sacred and theatre music, makes a case for acquiring both. That’s quite apart from The Sixteen’s delightful performances.
Christophers has chosen to focus each issue on one of Purcell’s three rulers: Charles II, James II, or – though we haven’t got to her yet – Queen Mary. This, the fourth in the series, is centred around a pair of Welcome Songs and is the third disc of music written for, or on behalf of, King Charles, the Merry Monarch himself. The puffed up text for From Those Serene and Rapturous Joys celebrates the king’s return to Whitehall from his summer break. By contrast, What Shall Be Done In Behalf of the Man? waxes lyrical on the return to political grace and favour of Charles’ brother and designated heir James, Duke of York, the future James II. Neither reach the sublime heights of the Queen Mary Birthday Odes to come, but both are suitably chipper affairs, though beneath the pomp and partying lurk underlying themes of dynastical loyalty and of rebellions put down.
Musical standards are top notch. Christophers’ octet of singers and dozen strings, to which he adds a pair of recorders and a continuo of organ, harpsichord, theorbo and harp, may not be quite as many musicians as Purcell had at his disposal, but the spirited performances pack the necessary punch and there’s a winning clarity brought out in the orchestral and vocal textures. If Charles trotting back from his holls is spun as more welcome “than life to Lazarus in his drowsy tomb” strikes us as a tad OTT, this is nevertheless winsome music.
The framing works can mostly be dated to Charles’s reign, and therefore count as early Purcell. Rejoice in the Lord Alway (better known as “The Bell Anthem” for its joyously pealing downward scales) gets matters off to a sprightly start, later matched by the lively O All Ye People, Clap Your Hands. Mark Dobell and Stuart Young have fun with Blow, Boreas, Blow, a typically rousing duet from the otherwise forgotten play Sir Barnaby Whigg, or No Wit Like a Woman’s, while Jeremy Budd gets to the pensive heart of Retir’d From Any Mortal’s Sight from Nahum Tate’s The History of King Richard the Second. The Chaconne (Two in One Upon a Ground) from Dioclesian fast forwards us to 1690, but its supplely duetting recorders make it a lovely thing to have.
For effortless grandeur I wouldn’t be without King, but this is another fascinating and appealing release in a highly collectable series.
Work: Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II Volume 3
Performers: Soloists, The Sixteen & Orchestra/Harry Christophers
Label: Coro COR16182