Hail! Bright Cecilia

Tis Nature’s Voice
Hail! Bright Cecilia
Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings
Milton Court. 9 March 2023

Matthew Locke etc. Suite from The Tempest
including Pelham Humfrey’s Masque of Neptune
Henry Purcell. Ode to Saint Cecilia: Hail! Bright Cecilia Z.328

Under the banner of the Academy of Ancient Music’s current concert series, ‘Tis nature’s voice! Laurence Cummings led them in a tour of English mid to late-17th-century music with a comparison between the music written by several composers for a 1674 production of The Tempest and the largest of Purcell’s Odes to Saint Cecilia, composed for the 1692 Saint Cecilia’s Day celebrations in Stationers’ Hall, a venue that still exists.

In contrast to most of the rest of Europe, English post-restoration music for the stage is a curious affair. In fact, for most of the 17th century, opera doesn’t really exist in anything like the world of opera on the continent. What did exist was music for the theatre – musical contributions to stage plays, played before and during the play as incidental music or in the form of short masques. The first half of this concert featured both genres, all composed for a lavish 1674 production of The Tempest, based on the popular rewrite of Shakespeare’s play by John Dryden and William D’Avenant.

Five composers contributed music to the play, most of which was by Matthew Locke but with a Masque of Neptune by Pelham Humfrey and single songs by Pietro Reggio and John Banister. A sequence of three tiny pieces that would have been played as the audience entered was followed by Reggio’s Arise, ye subterranean winds, sung by bass Ben Davies, and reflecting the tempest that Prospero has called up through his magic. Locke’s dramatic Curtain Tune followed, a wonderfully exotic depiction of the calm before the tempest and the tempest itself, marked in the score as ‘violent’. Laurence Cummings read the relevant extracts throughout, placing the music in the context of the play. Pelham Humfrey’s Masque of Neptune showed the goddess Amphitrite asking Neptune (the impressive bass Ben McKee) for safe passage.

Purcell’s Hail! Bright Cecilia was composed about 25 years later than the music for The Tempest, and it showed. Based on a rather clunky text based on an earlier, and better, script by John Dryden, Purcell uses the full forces of a large orchestra to compare all the instruments of the orchestra, all of which fail in comparison to ‘the noble organ – the Wond’rous Machine’, to which all eventually yield. In a sequence of 12 movements following the segmented initial Symphony, Purcell delights in his musical depictions of the various instruments, using (in the original performance) ten different vocal soloists, reduced to six in this performance – Mark Chambers, Ben Davies, Edward Ross, Eloise Irving, Christopher Bowen and Benjamin Durrant, all impressive.

The excellent programme notes by Lindsay Kemp explored the musical connotations of Purcell’s extraordinary music. My only quibble was the amount of vibrato from some of the upper voices, both in solo pieces and audible within the choruses. In the week that saw the appalling termination of the famed BBC Singers, it is worth comparing this AAm choir with their excellent performance (reviewed here) where, despite their enormous repertoire covering all styles, that managed a far more coherent and stylistically appropriate sound. If nothing else, it shows the incredible musical talents of the 20 BBC Singers who will soon lose their jobs.