“English Royal Funeral Music” = Works of PURCELL, TOMPKINS, MORLEY, WEELKES, PAISIBLE & TOLLETTE – Ricercar

by | Sep 10, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

“English Royal Funeral Music” = PURCELL: Funeral Sentences; O Dive Custos / Anthems; THOMAS MORLEY: Burial Sentences; THOMAS TOMPKINS: Burial Sentences; Pavan; THOMAS WEELKES: Death Hath Deprived Me; JAMES PAISIBLE and THOMAS TOLLETTE: The Queen’s Farewell – Vox Luminis /Les Trompettes des Plaisirs /Lingua Franca /Lionel Meunier – Ricercar RIC 332 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 62:30 *****:

The wonderfully stimulating idea behind this program is to explore the rich tradition of music written for the funerals of English royals from Elizabeth I on to Queen Mary, including the finest of all such works, those of Henry Purcell. These performances help us to understand how successfully Purcell worked in the tradition established by his musical forbearers and how in so doing he produced music of rare power.

The program is an attempt to faithfully recreate the music played at the funeral of William of Orange’s consort Queen Mary, who died in December 1694 (though the services weren’t held until March of 1695). This included settings that predate the death of Elizabeth (those of Thomas Morley, who died in 1602, a year before the Queen). Like Handel’s great coronation anthems, which are still played today at English coronations, the music of Morley was so highly regarded that it was naturally included in the service for Queen Mary. In fact, until fairly recently scholars believed that Purcell had written the choral music performed at the funeral though, as noted below, he was called upon to write just one of the pieces and only then through necessity.

The service began with a procession to Westminster Abbey accompanied by three purely instrumental compositions. First of all, two pieces entitled The Queen’s Farewell scored for oboe ensemble and written by court composers James Paisible and Thomas Tollett. This was followed by Purcell’s The Queen’s Funeral March, scored for slide trumpets and muffled drums, one of the most powerfully chilling works you’re likely ever to hear.

Following the proceedings at Westminster, at the door of the church the choir took up the first three of seven Funeral Sentences: I am the resurrection and the light, I know that my Redeemer liveth, and We brought nothing into this world. At the graveside, the choir would continue with Man that is born of woman; In the midst of life; and Thou knowest, Lord. To this point, all the choral pieces were by Morley, but “when it came time to assemble the music for Queen Mary’s funeral, it was realised that Morley’s setting of Thou knowest, Lord had disappeared.” Purcell supplied the missing music, mimicking the older style but “using a stronger and more emphatic instrumental colour to characterize his merciful God,” doubling the voices with the slide trumpets at his disposal. Following this number came another instrumental work of Purcell, the equally moving Canzona, scored again for slide trumpets (sans drums, of course). Finally, after earth had been thrown over the casket, the choir sang the last Funeral Sentence, again by Morley, I heard a voice from heaven.

Following the music performed at Queen Mary’s funeral are settings of the Funeral Sentences by Morley’s contemporary Thomas Tompkins, court composer to Charles I, and by Purcell himself, written for another and unknown occasion. Tompkins’s settings may have been performed in secret at services for King Charles following his beheading in 1649. Adding variety to the bill of fare, we have Tompkins’s tender lament for his fallen king, A Sad Pavan for these distracted times, played on a virginal modeled after an instrument built in 1626.

Purcell’s Funeral Sentences, dating from 1680–82, are incomplete; there are only three: Man that is born of woman; In the midst of life; and Remember not, Lord, our offenses. These are truly gorgeous works of the mid-Baroque, superbly harmonized, and along with Purcell’s setting of Thou knowest, Lord, are the high point of this program.

The singing and playing of Vox Luminis, Les Trompettes des Plaisirs, and Lingua Franca, all under the direction of Lionel Meunier, are reverential but potently alive as well. While I have other performances of this moving music in my collection, they are clearly superseded by the remarkable ones on this disc, which is now my benchmark. The sound, captured at L’église Saint-Jean Baptiste in Beaufays, is excellent, too: though nicely resonant, the recording has fine detail, the brass and drums powerfully having their say.

—Lee Passarella

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