At the beginning of this past October, the French Eloquentia label issued a recording of instrumental music by the 21-year-old Henry Purcell, composed in 1680 and collected under the title Fantasies and In nomines. These pieces provide one of the best windows into Purcell’s mastery of complex polyphony; and, over the course of this album, one encounters his writing music in three, four, five, six, and seven parts. Nevertheless, such pieces were considered old-fashioned when they were composed, perhaps because the sophisticated elegance of sixteenth-century masters of counterpoint was beyond the grasp of King Charles II.
It is thus not surprising that this music was not published at the time that Purcell wrote it. Those with a contemporary point of view might view these pieces as what Dmitri Shostakovich called music “for the desk drawer.” However, Purcell was young at the time and probably had much less to fear from Charles II than Shostakovich had to deal with in Joseph Stalin.
Nevertheless, Purcell’s composition definitely makes for engaging listening experiences. On this new recording, however, one has to put up with a fair number of obstacles for appreciating the value of the music. The performers are the members of a viol consort called Sit Fast: Atsushi Sakaï, Isabelle Saint Yves, Thomas de Pierrefeu, and Joshua Cheatham. For the compositions requiring more than four voices, they are joined by “guest artists” Nicholas Milne, Christine Plubeau, and Kaori Uemura.
At this point I should make the disclaimer that I has been suspicious of groups that go for trendy names ever since Bang on a Can went mainstream (i.e. when they started performing in Lincoln Center). “Sit fast” is another way of saying “sit still” with the connotation of “pay attention;” and the group claims that they got their name from the title of a piece by one of Purcell’s predecessors (writing when polyphony was more in fashion), Christopher Tye. The problem is that such cleverness often tends to be distracting, which, in this case, is counterproductive to the semantics of the name,
Fortunately, those willing to pay attention will be duly rewarded. My home town of San Francisco is a good place for those who enjoy viol consorts. An encounter with one in performance quickly registers advantages that such an ensemble has over the classical string quartet. Performance techniques can afford opportunities for a greater variety of sonorities, and the more subdued sounds of the instruments allow for better appreciation of the individual parts. This is, of course, highly rewarding when encountering polyphonic writing; but it is just as revealing when it comes to appreciating the sonorous blends achieved in homophony. Purcell’s collection provides Sit Fast with any number of opportunities to exercise their chops in both polyphony and homophony, and they definitely rise to both occasions.
On the other hand, because so little is known about this music, the preparation of material for the accompanying booklet is, at best, inadvertently negligent. These days anyone with a serious interest in Purcell’s music expects compositions to be identified with the numbers from Franklin B. Zimmerman’s catalog (just as one expects to find Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalog numbers on any composition by Johann Sebastian Bach). However, if disregard for catalog numbers is a “deadly” sin, then disregard for key information is a “mortal” one. Purcell’s music predated the rise of equal temperament, so the selection of a key involved more than specifying how many sharps or flats would apply.
In Purcell’s time every key had its own distinguishing sonorous characteristics. An appreciation for those differences goes all the way back to what Plato had Socrates say about the different modal scales in his Republic; and, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, theorists had begun to enumerate the different “affections” associated with different keys. By 1806 Christian Schubart had come up with a systematic documentation of the emotional implications of each of the 24 major and minor keys.
Purcell was, of course, far more limited in the number of keys he selected for the pieces in Fantasies and In nomines. For that matter, one of the “In Nomine” compositions is explicitly specified as being in the Dorian mode, rather than a major or minor key. Most likely Purcell was aware of the different affective connotations of the keys and modes, even if he did not always follow those connotations systematically. (He probably would have found Schubart’s classification outrageous, if not absurd.) Nevertheless, depriving the listener of key information on this album is more than a minor impediment if Sit Fast really expects that listener to pay attention!
I also have a less significant bone to pick with Sakaï’s notes for the accompanying booklet (translated from French into English by Mary Pardoc). He refers to the fact that Purcell’s manuscripts for these pieces are full scores, “which means that they could not easily be used for performances.” This is the sort of observation that might get Spock to raise each of his eyebrows. First of all, if this was never more than music “for the desk drawer,” then matters of performance may not have been on Purcell’s mind. Even so, however, another point is that, where sophisticated polyphony is concerned, each performer tends to benefit from knowing what the others are doing. Think of the transition from part books to full scores in vocal music. These days it is not considered peculiar when members of a string quartet play from full scores, nor should it surprise us when a consort of viols chooses to do the same.
Finally, those who like to refer to track numbers while listening should be warned that there is a misprint in the track listing. Two consecutive tracks are assigned the number 13. (The second of these begins a new column, which is probably why the error went unnoticed.) One needs to increment the number for the last three tracks on the printed listing, after which one has the proper accounting for all sixteen tracks on the album!