22nd November never quite seems central to the music lover’s or even the musician’s calendar, being too close perhaps to the Christmas glut of Messiahs. But here we were on the day itself, honouring St Cecilia, patron saint of music, in a space where discerning patrons of music have gathered since 1901. In charge of proceedings was the Scotland-based Dunedin Consort directed by John Butt, much praised for their recordings of music of the 18th century, especially Bach. But it was to the previous century and to England that they turned for this programme, flanked by the first and the last of Purcell’s four Odes to St Cecilia.

Tim Mead © Benjamin Ealovega
Tim Mead
© Benjamin Ealovega

Welcome to all the Pleasures, the Ode for St Cecilia's Day of 1683, made a beguiling opening. It’s a shortish work, but still rich enough to introduce us to each of the four splendid vocal soloists, several of them Dunedin regulars, which was especially telling when the four combined so effectively with the four ripienists for the choral sections. There was a proper choral blend, with no sense of four soloists and ‘four to make up the numbers’. And eight singers of this calibre was quite enough to produce an integrated, warm and weighty sound in the Wigmore Hall acoustic.

What to put in the middle of this Purcell sandwich? Here we had sections of incidental music from The Tempest by Matthew Locke and by John Weldon, albeit that the programme listings, though not the excellent notes, still gave the attribution of Weldon’s Tempest music to Purcell. The special pleading by the note writer – and from the stage by John Butt – did not quite persuade me that these pieces deserved their place on this particular occasion, even if they were interesting enough in themselves. The aptly-named Dunedin Consort leader, Cecilia Bernardini, shone in her vivacious solo in the song “Halcyon Days”, as she did throughout. And bass Matthew Brook’s occasional physical gestures were an apt reminder that this music once accompanied a drama. But Locke’s “Curtain Tune”, despite its title and for all its skill, did not make an especially effective first-half curtain, as the rather dutiful applause attested.

The Consort was now supplemented by two trumpets and timpani (surely for Purcell we should call the latter ‘kettledrums’?), and pairs of oboes and recorders. With the small platform now as crowded as for a school hall’s nativity play, there was a proper celebratory atmosphere, and music to match. Purcell’s Hail Bright Cecilia is one of his most ambitious works, a compendium of all his skills, vocal, instrumental, melodic and contrapuntal. No subsequent hymn to this particular saint surpasses Purcell’s score, not even Handel or Britten (let alone Simon and Garfunkel). From the expansive Sinfonia onwards this work was on a different compositional level to anything in the first half, and once Matthew Brook had sonorously hailed “Bright Cecilia” we were off into a fugal chorus of great brilliance, the singing and playing wonderfully precise and alert – John Butt knows what these musicians can do, and what the music needs.

Joanne Lunn’s gleaming soprano relished Purcell's characteristically melismatic lines in Thou tun’st this world, supported by the delightful tang of the Baroque oboes (Alex Bellamy and Frances Norbury, who doubled on recorders just as skillfully). Tenor Nicholas Mulroy sang with ringing ardour, and his duet with Tim Mead’s plangent counter-tenor in In Vain the Am’rous Flute was a real vocal highlight, chastely seductive in evoking the “Seraphic Fames and Heav’nly Love”. To Purcell’s own word-painting each soloist added subtle touches, as in the reiterations of “gently” so confidingly sung in that same men’s duet. These vocal forces simply had no weak link – tenor Malcolm Bennett and bass John Stainsby, soprano Claire Evans and alto Amy Lyddon almost deserved equal billing for their excellent solo contributions. This time there were cheers aplenty for the performance.

This piece was one of Purcells’ most successful, often performed through the 1690s and not only in London. Back then, of course, England and Scotland were two states, and even if they are sundered once again, the Dunedins should be prevailed upon every 22nd November to leave their Edinburgh fastness for Purcell’s city, and give this great Ode, for in such a performance as this it is as glorious a work of art as Restoration England – or 17th century Europe – has left us.