The first concert of 2019 for many of us, this performance of music by Purcell, Blow, Pelham Humfrey and William Williams, directed by Robert King, was also a nostalgic one, recalling the iconic recording of these works by The King’s Consort in 1987. That performance featured James Bowman and Michael Chance, their parts taken here by James Hall and Iestyn Davies. As King pointed out, James Hall was not even born when the first recording was made; it’s heartening to know, both that this music retains its unique power, and that we have two young counter-tenors of today who are able to take on the mantle of their distinguished predecessors.
‘Sound the Trumpet’ is the perfect way to launch a concert, its sprightly accompaniment relished by the players and its show-off vocal lines much enjoyed by the singers. If you don’t know it, there’s a joyful version of it by Bowman and Chance on YouTube. Hall and Davies are the perfect partners in this music, each seeming to vie with the other for who can produce the most virtuosic decorations – as is entirely appropriate.
It would have been wonderful to hear Purcell’s largest-scale ode, the 1692 St Cecilia’s Day, but we had to be content with ‘In vain the am’rous flute,’ with its delightful music for two recorders, played here with verve and delicacy by Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson. The vocal line is similarly pleasing, the evocation of the descriptions in the line ‘Wanton heat and loose desire’ relished by the singers. The next piece, ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’ challenges the voice with its complex melody sung above a repeated ground bass. Iestyn Davies sang it mesmerizingly, the final ‘O how I solitude adore’ lingering in the air after the music was over. Blow’s ‘Ah heav’n! What is’t I hear?’ provided a fine example of harmony from the two singers in ‘The note’s so soft, so sweet the ayre; The soul of love sure must be there.’
The concert’s first half closed with Purcell’s elegy on the death of Queen Mary, set to Henry Parker’s melancholy text and displaying Purcell’s fascinatingly expressive word setting. The mood of this doleful piece was continued in the second part, with music by Blow, Pelham Humfrey and William Williams, the latter providing the only light relief with his utterly beguiling Sonata in imitation of birds. Humfrey’s setting of Donne’s A hymn to God the Father and Blow’s An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell are both wonderful pieces, and both were superbly sung, although one did feel that perhaps a little contrast might have made their impact more memorable – Sweeter than Roses, say, or another equally cheerful piece.
The encore thankfully provided some light relief in the shape of ‘Hark, how the Songsters’ which allowed the entire group to show off a remarkable closeness of ensemble, most notably the unshowy yet supportive playing of Reiko Ichise and Lynda Sayce, on bass viol and theorbo respectively. The planned new recording won’t supplant the 1987 one, but will certainly be a desired addition to the collection of anyone interested in this music, devotedly and most musically performed.