Welcome Songs Vol. III

Rejoice In The Lord Alway (The Bell Anthem)

Chaconne – two in one upon a ground from Dioclesian
Close Thine Eyes And Sleep Secure
Boreas, Boreas Blow
O All Ye People, Clap Your Hands
Come, My Hearts, Play Your Parts

Overture in D minor
Thy Genius, Lo!
O Praise the Lord, All Ye Heathen
Retir’d From Any Mortal’s Sight

Welcome songs –
What Shall Be Done In Behalf Of The Man
From Those Serene And Rapturous Joys

The Sixteen
Harry Christophers Conductor

Coro COR16182
Full Price

The Review

One of the splendid things about this disc is that, like the first three volumes in the series, it delivers much more than it promises. There is much more here than the two Welcome Songs for King Charles and his brother. There are anthems, instrumental interludes, drinking and theatre songs, several from the decade after Charles’s reign too. The Sixteen is also an excellent understatement. Nine singers are joined by a seventeen strong instrumental ensemble. The singers perform as soloists as well as choir, the players similarly.

The Bell Anthem, which launches the disc, is paced beautifully. I think I sang every voice in this at school as a teenager and listening to it here, I realise how far I was from mastering it. It is so often the way with Purcell’s music: just easy enough to be sung by good amateurs but once a truly fine group takes it on, the difference is extraordinary. His great gift was to keep Charles’s foot tapping in the royal apartments and chapels, without making the hyperbole of the poet’s royal flattery ridiculous. Charles did not take himself too seriously and so would probably have smiled indulgently at the absurd praise, sharing the half joke; the performers careful enough of political propriety not to treat such court flummery as comic theatre. His brother James seems to have had very little sense of humour and would have taken the nonsense of the Welcome Songs at face value.

The earlier of the Welcome Songs here, What Shall Be Done In Behalf Of Man, is all about James who returned to London in 1682 after three years in Edinburgh as Charles’ Lord Commissioner. Charles had been crowned at Scone, near Perth, as King of Scots in 1651, long before his restoration in England. As it turned out, he was the last King to have a coronation there. Scottish politics, and Charles and James’s management of them, were never anything but fraught and duplicitous and the words Purcell set cleverly seem to mean at least two things at once: loyal flattery on the surface, a warning against machination just below it. James, despite his Catholicism in a Calvinist country, had been reasonably popular in Edinburgh, where he lived in the freshly modernised Holyrood Palace, as comfortable as Whitehall but his time there was not a reward, it was seen as partial banishment for getting in the way of Charles’s policies in London. His return was more about the need to cement James in the succession than any genuine agreement.

Two years later Thomas Flatman wrote ‘from those serene and rapturous joys a country life alone can give, exempt from tumult and from noise’. He was referring to Newmarket, where Charles liked to spend the summer watching the racing. The second verse, though, is full of politics. ‘Behold th’indulgent Prince is come to view the conquests of his mercy shown to the new proselytes of his mighty town.’ Charles in 1684 was being anything but indulgent to London’s opposition Whig dissenters. That summer he had reshuffled his cabinet, demoting advocates of religious and political toleration like Lord Halifax (who wrote, ‘an absolute government is neither so happy nor so safe as that which is tempered by laws and which sets bounds to the authority of the prince’), imprisoning Quakers and ruling without calling a Parliament – the closest he ever came to the repressive actions of his father. By December, three months after this song was performed, those who were suspected of resisting him in Scotland were being summarily rounded up by James Drummond, Lord Chancellor of Scotland, tortured and executed within hours. Flatman, by going over the top in his welcome in praising Charles as bringer of peace, was just being prudent, even if wilfully inaccurate. Ironically, the lines ‘nor does the sun more comfort bring when he turns winter into spring’ were not prophetic, for Charles died of a stroke and uraemia the following January and James VII (Scotland) and II (England) was kicked out after three years for trying to carry on the autocracy.

As we have come to expect from The Sixteen, the musicianship is exemplary. Harry Christophers always finds a balance in his forces between retaining intimacy and the fact that these were not pieces for normal domestic surroundings but for the Palace of Whitehall (probably the surviving Banqueting House with its Rubens ceilings installed for Charles and James’ grandfather, the original Unionist James VI & I) and the theatre a mile or so down river at Dorset Gardens, just passed The Temple, which seated 850 and so was similar in size to most modern West End theatres. These are likely to be regarded as the standard performances for some years to come.