Founded in November of 2013, the Henry Purcell Society has had a promising start with Boston audiences. At least initially, HPS will be dedicated to raising awareness of Purcell’s music, with a long-term goal of broadening its gaze to the music of the English Baroque (BMInt’s interview with the founders of the HPS is here. The society premiered last April with a concert that explored some of the composer’s miniatures, featuring rising stars of the Boston musical scene accompanied by the period instrument Cyprian Consort (Jason McCool’s review is here). Sunday’s concert, under Suzanne McAllister and Emily Howe in All Saints’ Parish in Brookline, explored the composer’s larger works for choir.
The duet O dive custos auriacae domus (O saintly keeper of the House of Orange) revealed influences from innovations of Purcell’s contemporaries Monteverdi in Italy and Schutz in Germany: florid Italianate vocal lines and ornaments are sensitively backed by the supple harmonic blocking from the continuo reminiscent of music from Northern European. The choral movements from Funeral Music for Queen Mary—“Man that is born of Woman,” “In the midst of Life we are in death,” and “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts” came next, directed by Susan McAllister. Composed for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695, these settings are parts of the larger Funeral Sentences, which features flatt trumpets (with double slides capable of chromaticism), organ, and percussion. Vastness and pomp pervade the roughly30-minute duration of complete version. But, when stripped down to thea three choral movements, the excerpts gain an emotional intimacy that exhibits Purcell’s supple craft for balancing voices through intricate contrapuntal and chromatic writing. These were nicely supplemented with two sacred motets, Thy word is a Lantern and O God, thou art my God (Z 61, and 35, respectively).
Sunday’s concert ended with season-appropriate music under the baton of Emily Howe: the Te Deum and Jubilate Deo, both written for the feast of St. Cecilia in 1694. Purcell’s setting of these texts from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was unfathomably grand for his time—a fact that is commented on by his contemporaries. The scale is not insignificant: six years prior, England had seen the Glorious Revolution in which the Catholic James II was ousted in favor of the Protestants William and Mary. Much like Lutheran composers’ legitimizing the reformer’s religion through settings of his hymns, Purcell’s setting of the Anglican BCP attempts to support the reintroduced state Protestantism of England; performances in the major religious centers of the time would have reinforced this allegiance. The Te Deum and Jubilate Deo are set for full orchestra, adult and children’s choirs and a wide array of soloists. The music alternates between full choral textures and more intimate solo/ensemble verses, playing with the different colors of the gathered forces to produce a range of emotional effects, from majestic triumph to dolorous vulnerability. We are spoiled, of course: subsequent composers took this setting as a model (most notably Handel in his Utrecht version); Purcell’s innovations may not seem as striking to modern ears. But the artistry of the writing is still apparent: the contrast between grand and intimate, externalized and internalized emotion, and the fluidity in the transitions between displays Purcell’s technique at its strongest.
The mixed choirs of All Saints, Brookline and treble choir of All Saints, Ashmont sang confidently on Sunday afternoon’s music, but the more detailed work (enunciation, inner harmonies) was muted by the expansive space of the sanctuary. This effect didn’t prove a significant issue when the choirs were in unison—in particular, crystalline lines from the trebles in the penultimate Te Deum were focused and clear. However, the full effect of independent vocal lines and the careful attention to words and dynamics—all obviously present in the musicians’ attentive concentration during the performance—were largely swallowed by the venue. Tempi tended to drag in the first half of the concert, which partially ameliorated some of these issues but was by no means a solution. More motivated tempi after intermission produced more excitement.
Despite the acoustic issues with the larger choirs, small ensemble works fared well, and I was pleased to hear both familiar and new voices. Jacob Scharfman is part of the latter category, and is certain to gain popularity. Paired with Charles Blandy and Gerrod Pagendorf, Scharfman’s bass-baritone is well-rounded and rich, maintaining clarity and precision throughout his entire range. Countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf produces a more subtle tone that was sometimes drowned out by the more substantial voices or instruments; Douglas Dodson’s countertenor is quite different, producing an incisive and pristine tone in his upper ranges. Hearing both countertenors in duet on Sunday afternoon was a delightful study in contrast. Boston audiences are familiar with Blandy and Honeysucker, and Sunday’s performance from them reinforced why: Blandy’s tenor is at once flexible and lyrical–a heroic contrast to Honeysucker’s profound, operatic bass that filled the vaulted sanctuary of All Saints’. These voices were effectively paired in several memorable trios in the Te Deum with Pagendorf. Among the many memorable performances, sopranos Jessica Cooper and Shannon Canavin were accompanied by portativ organ and theorbo (Andrew Sheranian and Catherine Liddell, respectively) in the opening duet of the afternoon. Cooper and Canavin were a good pairing for this work, Canavin’s darker timbre providing sharp contrast to Cooper’s bejeweled upper range.
Sunday afternoon proved yet again that HPS will amaze with its thoughtful and adventurous programming from the English Baroque.