As with Mozart and Bach, it’s difficult to go wrong with the music of Henry Purcell. This CD is a tasteful aural theme-park of the master’s loveliest works. It features his most celebrated piece, “Come, ye sons of Art.” Of course this ode is dazzling throughout, not just in its downright catchy vocal opening. Listen to such airs as “Strike the viol, touch the lute” and the virtuosic aria “These are the sacred charms,” sung by the deft and powerful tenor Andrew Staples. The second birthday song “Love’s goddess sure” is even more spirited (if that’s possible). I’m not sure which countertenor sings which stanzas, but both Hanson and Mead are impressive ode-singers. They inhabit the same regions of expression as the famous Alfred Deller. When the two of them sing together, as in “Many many such days may she behold,” the effect is entertaining and transporting. Close your eyes and imagine hearing it in Westminster Abbey in 1693, with Queen Mary basking in all the attention, and you a mere dust mote on her shoe.
“Long may she reign,” is delicately sung by the aptly named soprano Kate Royal. Her voice is not powerful (I can’t imagine her singing Wagner), but it is delicate and subtly hued like a lily. The inclusion of over twenty minutes of funeral music, admittedly necessary to complete the CD’s theme, is the only programming decision I have issues with. Composed a mere nine months before Purcell himself died—some say of chocolate poisoning!—this music is indeed doleful, but not particularly inventive. Its trudging polyphony has been done better by others, starting with Palestrina. While the most melodic death-piece is the choral Funeral Anthem of Queen Mary, I can’t help but think: what a gloomy way to end this glorious disc! It reminds me of Ferlinghetti’s poem “The World is a Beautiful Place,” which is about the joys of living, but ends with the line “Yes/but then right in the middle of it/comes the smiling/mortician.”
– Peter Bates