22 November, St Cecilia’s day, lends itself perfectly to music by two of Britain’s greatest composers. Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten both wrote pieces to celebrate Cecilia as patron saint of music, and Britten was inspired and enriched by Purcell’s music. Fortuitously for concert programmers, Britten’s birthday also falls on St Cecilia’s day, and so today also marks the beginning of the Britten centenary celebrations.

Gabrieli Consort
Gabrieli Consort

During Gabrieli Consort & Players’ concert this evening, conductor Paul McCreesh mentioned the aptness of the date (and apparently two of his consort’s founder members also had a birthday today), and he spoke too about his group’s love for Purcell, saying that he is probably their favourite composer. Listening to tonight’s performances of Purcell’s two odes for St Cecilia’s day, Welcome to all the pleasures and Hail! Bright Cecilia it was clear that the choir and ensemble are particularly well suited to the stylised theatricality of Purcell’s secular music.

The two odes for St Cecilia were written just nine years apart, but they vividly illustrate the transition from early to late Baroque styles; the later of the two, Hail! Bright Cecilia, clearly points in the direction of Handel, and is an early example of writing for a full Baroque orchestra, with winds, brass and timpani, perhaps inspired by the text, which takes the listener through a catalogue of instruments. The oboe playing was immaculate – never easy to achieve on Baroque instruments – but I felt that the recorders could have been better positioned, as they were overwhelmed by the strings and continuo.

The first ode, Welcome to all the pleasures, is scored for just strings and continuo. The overture set the style for the rest of the evening; heavily accented rhythms, and absolute precision. Unlike Purcell’s sacred works, this is not music that demands intense emotional engagement, but is music that wears a mask of artifice, as indeed do the very formal texts that Purcell set, so the cool detachment of the orchestral playing felt quite appropriate. More warmth came from the chorus, particularly in the final sections where Cecilia is named and praised.

Sandwiched between the two Purcell odes was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia, with words written for the composer by his friend W.H. Auden. Britten sets the text with great sensitivity to the shifting rhythms of Auden’s poetry, and the singers of the Gabrieli Consort here gave space and sense to the words. Without the support of the orchestra, there were occasional wobbles – hesitant entries and some tuning problems – but overall, this was a powerful and thoughtful performance. After a gently reverent statement of the first “Blessed Cecilia”, the second section (“I cannot grow; I have no shadow”) was delightfully playful, with some really agile ensemble singing, and although the choppy phrasing of the soprano solo in “O dear white children” wasn’t to my taste, the whole of this third section was laden with the powerful sense of mature regret that is implied by the words. We will no doubt be hearing plenty of performances of the Hymn to St Cecilia over the next twelve months, and this first one sets a high standard.

Both of the Purcell odes contain extensive and elaborate solo passages, mostly for men, with the chorus coming in only at key moments. All the soloists were excellent, and I particularly enjoyed the well-matched trio and duet sections. Bass Jimmy Holliday produced a rich sound whilst remaining nimble enough to zip round Purcell’s decorative melodic lines, and soprano Susan Hemington Jones’ solo had a lovely delicacy of tone. The singer who really stood out, though, was tenor Thomas Walker. His aria “Beauty, thou scene of love” in the first ode was silky smooth, but with an infectious swing, which was helped along here by some emphatically rhythmic chitarrone playing. Later, in Hail! Bright Cecilia, he let rip on a thrilling “The fife and all the harmony of war”, accompanied by some simply outstanding Baroque trumpet playing from Dave Hendry and Robert Vanryne – a brief moment of passion amidst the detached ceremonial style that pervaded the evening.

The other star of the show was the English language: Britten himself wrote “One of my chief aims, is to try and restore to musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell”, and all the singers of the Gabrieli Consort made the texts a crucial part of their performance, with excellent diction and carefully considered phrasing. Purcell and Britten between them make St Cecilia’s day an opportunity to celebrate English music, and the Gabrielis’ performance tonight vividly showed why it is these two composers more than any mythical saint who continue to inspire new generations of musicians in this country.

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