The best recordings of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary

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CouldFuneral music by rcell for Queen Mary, like Albinoni’s Adagio and Allegri Miserere, belongs to the category of ancient compositions shaped by modern hands. Scholar Bruce Wood suggests that the piece as generally performed, a compilation of Purcell’s beginning and end, is “completely wrong”.

. Its verdict will ring harsh for those touched by its mix of solemn brass music and choral settings of the Funeral Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer. Yet Wood, after reviewing opaque reports of Queen Mary’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey on March 5, 1695, and flimsy evidence of the music played during it, attaches a long list of questions to the work. We know that the March and the Canzona were heard by the mourners at the funeral, for which Purcell wrote his second setting of You know Lord. The rest of the resplendent service’s music content remains open for debate.

Purcell’s best recordings Funeral music for Queen Mary

Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier

(2012)

Ricercar RIC332

WORK ON THE CHURCH OF Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Belgium began six years after the burial of Queen Marie. The sacred space of the building – more intimate than Westminster Abbey – and the clear but warm sound captured in its acoustics contribute to the intense atmosphere of Lionel Meunier’s recording of the Queen’s funeral music. Meunier creates a compelling study of works performed on the occasion, embracing Wood’s research and placing Purcell’s funeral music for Queen Mary in the context of pieces associated with earlier English royal funerals. Vox Luminis follows the unsentimental example of its conductor, thrifty in its use of vibrato and eternally wedded to immaculate intonation and articulation. Their unceremonious singing allows for the harmonic tensions and surface colors of Purcell’s second setting. You know Lord emerge naturally; the addition of four ‘flatt’ or slide trumpets amplifies the expressive power of the anthem. Farewell marches by James Peaceful and Thomas Tollett are used to evoke the procession of the ‘Queen’s chariot’, a purpose-built hearse, from Whitehall to the Abbey, with Purcell’s march serving as a bridge to the funeral service well said. Meunier and his musicians travel far beyond the confines of studio recording to forge a strong impression of the ritual surrounding a royal burial.

VSchoir of the king’s wife; New College Choir, Oxford

The King’s Wife / Robert King (1993)

Hyperion CDA 66677

Boyish highs, a quartet of slide trumpets, a crack team of adult male voices and wisely judged speeds add to the appeal of Robert King’s recording, part of his complete sacred music set from Purcell for Hyperion. King brackets the composer’s first three funeral phrases with his final setting of You know Lord, framing the four choral pieces with the March and the Canzona and two long drum marches. He opens The man who was born of a woman with a solo quartet, a strategy rewarded with beautiful singing and a degree of textural transparency suited to the words about the shortness of life and the misery of mankind. Best of all is the revised version of Purcell’s first tuning of You knowsung with great tenderness and embellished with an exquisite recorded sound.

Westminster Abbey Choir

London’s New Husband / Martin Neary (1995)

Sony Classic SK66243

Martin Neary and the Westminster Abbey Choir, aided and abetted by the New London Consort, marked the tercentenary of Purcell’s death with this recording, a majestic album of the composer’s music for Queen Mary in life and in death. The Funeral Music opens here with Wood’s transcription of the ‘Old English March’ in procession through the reverberating interior of Westminster Abbey, then accompanied by the harmony marches of Tollet and Peaceful and the march Purcell’s funeral. For a sense of place, history and grandeur, nothing beats recording Neary. His choir is in top form in Morley’s Funeral Sentences but hampered by an indistinct recorded sound. The Canzona’s deliberate tread, crafted with the care of tripwire-trading cat burglars, loses its initial appeal with repeated listening.

The Sixteen

Sixteen Orchestra / Harry Christophers (2004)

Coro COR16024

In The Sixteen’s recording of “the complete funeral music for Queen Mary”, Harry Christophers strikes the right balance between solemnity and energy, driving the energy of the processional marches of Peaceful, Tollet and Purcell into the Funeral Sentences of Morley. The album has a warm and smooth recorded sound, in which every word registers cleanly, every voice counts. While some may prefer slower speeds for the hymns, the urgent momentum of Christophers readings draws attention to the pulse of life in death. Its subtle tempo shifts between pieces stem from the content of their texts and a sense of ritual drama built into the Order of Service at the burial of the dead.

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