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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Mr Henry Purcell’s Most Admirable Composures
We sing to him whose wisdom form’d the ear, Z199 (Musica Sacra, 1688) [2:15]
The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian, Z627 - Song: ‘What shall I do to show how much I love her?’ (1690) [1:55]
How long, great God? Devotional song, Z189 [4:07]
Not all my torments can your pity move, Z400 [1:59]
Oedipus, Z583 - Song: ‘Music for a while’ (1692) [3:25]
King Arthur, or The British Worthy, Z628 - Act 5. Song: ‘Fairest isle, all isles excelling’ (1691) [3:58]
Hears not my Phillis how the birds? (‘The Knotting Song’), Z371 (1694) [2:26]
The Fairy Queen, Z629 - Song: The Plaint ‘O, let me forever weep’ (1692) [7:32]
Ye tuneful Muses, Welcome Ode for James II, Z344 - Movement 7: ‘With him he brings the partner of his throne’ (1688) [4:43]
Tyrannic Love, or The Royal Martyr, Z613 - Song: ‘Ah, how sweet it is to love’ (1694) [2:01]
The Rival Sisters, or The Violence of Love, Z609 - Song: ‘Celia has a thousand charms’ (1695) [2:27]
The fatal hour comes on apace, Z421 [3:41]
If music be the food of love, Z379a (first setting, 1692) [2:25]
The Fairy Queen, Z629 - Song: One charming night (1692) [2:13]
The Prophetess, or The History of Dioclesian, Z627 - Song: Since from my dear Astrea’s sight [3:25]
Welcome to all the pleasures, Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, Z339 - Movement 3: ‘Here the Deities approve’ (1683) [3:57]
Now that the sun hath veiled his light (‘An Evening Hymn’), devotional song, Z193 (1688) [4:03]
James Bowman (counter-tenor)
The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. Radley College, Oxfordshire, England, 9-10 April, 1988. DDD.
Texts included.
Experience Classicsonline


The reissue of this recording may not be the most momentous event of Purcell’s anniversary year, but it is very welcome. I listened to it immediately after the Hyperion/King’s Consort 11-CD collection of the complete Sacred Music and found that it maintained the high standard set by that recording on which, of course, James Bowman also figures prominently.

Three devotional songs here overlap with that complete set: track 1, ‘We sing to him whose wisdom form’d the ear’, track 3; ‘How long, great God?’ and the closing track 17, the Evening Hymn. Bowman, however, does not perform them on the complete set and, good as those performances are, those on this Helios reissue are at least their equals, if not slightly preferable. With performances as good as these, duplication is no problem; even in my over-large collection there is room for both.

Two other tracks also duplicate material available from Hyperion and the King’s Consort: track 9, ‘With him he brings’, is taken from the Welcome Ode for James II, Ye tuneful Muses, and track 16, ‘Here the Deities approve’, from the Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, Welcome to all the pleasures. These were recorded on Volume 4 and Volume 1 respectively of Hyperion’s Complete Odes and Welcome Songs (set on CDS44031-8, or you may still find Volume 1 singly on CDA66314, Volume 4 on CDA66456). The soloist on those recordings is none other than James Bowman, here going head to head with himself. The interpretation of ‘With him he brings’ is a few seconds more relaxed on the complete recording from two years later, but there’s very little in it. The interpretation of ‘Here the Deities approve’ is even closer – hardly surprisingly, since both versions were set down in adjacent months in 1988.

You may feel, therefore, that an overlap of almost 9 minutes out of a total of 58 makes the new reissue poor value, since Purcell lovers will already possess or wish to buy the complete versions of these odes, either singly or on the excellent value 8-CD box set. Against that, however, offset the very inexpensive cost of these Helios CDs - 6.99 direct from Hyperion, sometimes even less from other suppliers – and even the purse-proud should be happy.

In every other respect, the reissue is thoroughly recommendable. It’s hard to imagine a better set of performances of this delightful music, even twenty years on. Historically, only Alfred Deller has an equal or better claim than James Bowman as a Purcell interpreter. Excellent as is Gill Ross’s rendition of ‘Fairest isle’, for example, in John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of King Arthur (Erato 4509 96552 2 or 4509 98535 2; excerpts on Apex 2564 61501 2), Bowman and King are their equals: if Gardiner’s accompaniment has the edge over King’s, Bowman’s singing marginally outdoes Ross’s. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t consider buying either the complete 2-CD set or the very inexpensive highlights from this wonderful music; making the comparison between the two versions of ‘Fairest isle’ compelled me to keep the CD on and listen to the rest of Gardiner’s King Arthur. ‘How blest are the shepherds’ has a fair claim to be considered Purcell’s most beautiful music and it’s beautifully delivered by Paul Elliott. The Frost Scene uncannily anticipates Vivaldi’s depiction of Winter and Stephen Varcoe is an excellent Cold Genius in this scene.

Other performances of ‘Music for a while’, ‘If music be the food of love’, ‘Fairest isle’ and The Evening Hymn, such as those which I reviewed on a recent collaboration between Jette Rosendal and Colin Booth (Restoration, CDK1002 – see review), though attractive, are left in the shade by Bowman.

Add to the virtues of the Bowman/King’s performances the fact that the Helios recording is still fully competitive with today’s best, unless you demand SACD, and that the booklet of notes and overall presentation remain as full as they were originally and you have a first-rate bargain. I have to mention my one disappointment with Helios reissues – the under-characterised version of Vaughan Williams’ Five Tudor Portraits and Mystic Songs on one of their earliest reissues, CDH55004 – to demonstrate that I don’t have any vested interest in the product, other than real pleasure that such wonderful performances are available so inexpensively.

Having played the CD once, I played it all again immediately, with equal enjoyment. If you have any lingering doubts, try the samples from three of the highlights, Music for a while (track 5), Fairest isle (tr.6) and the Evening Hymn (tr.17) from Hyperion’s website – then place your order. If you like James Bowman’s singing here and the support which he receives from The King’s Consort, you should also consider their version of Bach Cantatas 54, 169 and 170 (CDH55312 – see my review and Jens Laurson’s slightly less enthusiastic review.) And don’t forget Emma Kirkby’s Helios CD of Purcell’s Songs and Dialogue (CDH55056, with David Thomas and Anthony Rooley – no overlap with the Bowman recital.)
Brian Wilson


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