Music of the Baroque pays homage to Purcell

Tue Apr 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Paul Agnew conducted Music of the Baroque in works of Henry Purcell Monday night at the Harris Theater.
Paul Agnew conducted Music of the Baroque in works of Henry Purcell Monday night at the Harris Theater.

It’s good to see Music of the Baroque exploring less-often-heard baroque music.

MOB provided a highlight of the musical year earlier this month with stirring performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers. And its penultimate season program was devoted to music of Henry Purcell Monday night at the Harris Theater.

It’s heartening as well to see guest conductors leading MOB programs, a development that has been long overdue. Paul Agnew was in charge of the proceedings Monday and the Scottish tenor-turned-conductor proved an admirable advocate, directing the MOB Chorus in an evening centered on Purcell anthems.

As pointed out in Jennifer More Glagov’s excellent program note, Purcell was in the right place at the right time, with the restoration of Charles II ushering in a new era for English church music. Rather than the previously required somber and ascetic style, composers were now able to write with a more open and varied approach under the enlightened regent.

This was a natural for a man of the theater like Purcell who adapted quickly to the loosening of strictures in his church anthems. While these are still devout and serious works mindful of spiritual matters, the composer was able to cast the sacred texts in a more populist style.

Agnew’s selection and ordering of anthems was intelligently chosen with instrumental interludes by the accompanying chamber sextet providing contrast. Each half of the program was, wisely, performed without interruption.

If his expansive spoken introduction felt a bit like the British history version of Deuteronomy, Agnew proved a worthy advocate for this music. Leading sans baton, Agnew drew alert and expressive singing from the chorus, which he prepared for this program.

Rejoice in The Lord alway made an apt curtain-raiser, with three solo voices leaning into the heart-easing opening phrases before the entrance of the full choir. Agnew consistently underlined the complexity of Purcell’s writing for divided voices, drawing out the striking, layered sophistication in I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live.

Rather than smoothly blended choral textures, Agnew opted for a rougher, more rustic style that suited Purcell’s madrigal-like solo writing. That quality was most manifest in O sing to the Lord a new song, with a solo quartet led by the excellent bass Kevin Keys, who provided sturdy solo contributions throughout.

With a dozen Purcell anthems over the course of the evening, at times one wanted a wider dynamic and expressive choral response to this music. The largest and best-known work of the evening, My heart is inditing, felt like a bit of an anticlimax–solidly performed but rather prosaic at the end of the evening.

Still, the singing was largely committed and polished–some pitchy moments in Blow up the trumpet in Sion, apart. The stately beseeching of Remember not, Lord, our offences, was surely conveyed and the MOB singers were at their finest in Miserere mei, caressing the long lines in a hushed and atmospheric performance.

The chamber sextet provided excellent backing as well as lending musical contrast with Purcell sonata movements. Violinists Rika Seko and Kate Carter teamed with cellist Matthew Agnew in an elegant rendering of Purcell’s Sonata V, and violist Elizabeth Hagen, organist Robert McConnell, and theorbo player Daniel Swenberg fluently filled out the ensemble.

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