Those weaned on Purcell’s great Fantasias of 1680, with their superlative juxtaposing of archaic longings and innovative yearnings, might all too easily dismiss the composer’s sonatas as formulaic and fashion-bound. The comparison is somewhat odious since Purcell is writing here not as a self-appointed philosopher-king but as an ambitious public servant proving himself in a la mode idioms; although the 1683 published collection suggests that Purcell had had three or so years to expunge viols from his memory, the truth is that chamber music with violins had long been standard practice and moreover some of the 12 Sonatas here (and the 10 further ones published posthumously in 1697) were probably composed closer to the viol Fantasias than weRead more imagine. In any case, Purcell evidently had little trouble switching to an idiom where outward-bound variety (the key to the best works of those “most fam’d Italian masters” whom Purcell sought to imitate) would result in subscribers for publication and further dissemination.
If the lyrical refinement and other-worldliness of the Fantasias is largely absent, Purcell manipulates the flighty drama of the Italian spirit with a seasoned individuality. For a start he never entirely rejects the Englishness of the Fantasias, both in terms of harmonic unpredictability and the contrapuntal texture which forced Roger North to describe the sonatas as “clog’d with somewhat of an English vein”. Sonata No. 5 is a case in point and one which the performers here relish with an imploring legato and doleful accentuation, plentifully endowed with rhetorical detail. Indeed, characterization – and just how far one goes in music whose gestures are mapped out with great clarity – is what makes this such an interesting recording. Unlike Christopher Hogwood’s lively but comparatively unsophisticated 1979 release of the posthumous set (L’Oiseau-Lyre, 3/93), there is a grandeur and interpretational scope which gives each sonata its own measure of distinction. The violin playing of Pavlo Beznosiuk and Rachel Podger is beautifully matched and coloured, warm-toned in the opening of the Corellian Sixth Sonata but ‘just and quick’, crisp and precise in the canzona-style allegros of Sonatas Nos. 2 and 12.
Hogwood performs on a chamber organ throughout (often in tandem – when Purcell decrees it – with Christophe Coin’s eloquent if slightly restrained gamba), unlike Richard Egarr in London Baroque’s polished and finely-crafted accounts who varies the texture with a harpsichord. However, youthful abandon and effervescent personality are what makes this new disc such an infectious addition to the catalogue. We have distinguished performances from the Purcell Quartet and London Baroque but this is chamber music playing which seeks out new territory.
-- Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Gramophone [4/1996] Read less