As Purcell song programmes go, this one is not easy listening. Perhaps only the Evening Hymn would count as a ‘favourite’. And, whereas most anthologies, mixing the sacred with the secular, could leaven the penitential tone of ‘With sick and famish’d eyes’ or the traumatic drama of ‘Tell me some pitying angel’ with lighter-hearted fare, the atmosphere in these 16 devotional songs from the Harmonia sacra volumes are predominantly gloomy, even self-lacerating. This is not to criticise but rather to warn that this is earnest stuff, even when the mood brightens briefly, as in, say, ‘We sing to him, whose wisdom form’d the ear’. On the other hand, when one of the great vocal magicians of the Baroque era writes for connoisseurs, one has to marvel at the sustained declamatory power of ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’, the formal coherence of even such a sectionally conceived piece as ‘Lord, what is man?’ and the effortless sophistication of the word-setting at every turn. Two of the works here, by the way, are anonymous rather than by Purcell, though the booklet manages to make it seem as if only note-writer Bruce Wood is aware of the fact.
Rosemary Joshua brings vocal security and textual intelligence to these works and though a slightly flighty vibrato sometimes threatens the music’s intimacy, it does not get in the way of superbly realised greater dramatic truth. The continuo accompaniments are as sensitively accomplished as one would expect from such a line-up, and when Christophe Rousset steps forward in a handful of short harpsichord solos, he finds a grandeur in Purcell’s keyboard music not always apparent in other performances. If this is a sober disc, it is also one which reeks of Purcell’s genius. (Gramophone)