Henry Purcell: Chamber Music for Up to Four Parts

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Germany's Ensemble CordArte, from Cologne, offers an almost unrelievedly serious hour of instrumental music here in this collection of chamber music by Henry Purcell. It may be difficult listening in a way, but it's an ambitious recording that gives the listener a good idea of the scope of music that is sometimes performed in a rather monochrome way. CordArte mixes up the various genres of Purcell's instrumental music rather than presenting sequences of one genre or another. The aim in so doing is to illustrate the novelty of the young Purcell's style (he was in his early twenties when most of this music was written), which drew on influences from Italy, France, and perhaps Germany, while also looking back at the grand tradition of English music in the 17th century. The violin was still a rare instrument in England in 1683, when the set of 12 Sonatas in Three Parts from which several of these pieces are taken was first published. These are vintage Purcell, sober yet lyrical takes on the pre-Corelli Italian sonata. Purcell professed to dislike the French style but nevertheless wrote several works for King Charles II's Four-and-Twenty Fiddlers, a direct imitation of the French court's 24 Violons du Roi. The Suite in G major (track 2) and perhaps the Chacony in G major (track 11) represent this part of his output, and the fantasias and pavans are old English contrapuntal pieces spiced up with daring chromatic effects. For contrast there are also several keyboard pieces, with the bell-like quality of Markus Märkl's harpsichord, a copy of a 1710 Berlin instrument, offering a delightful interlude among the string sounds. All these styles are filtered through Purcell's unique sensibility, and it deepens the listener's appreciation of Purcell to be able to sort out the various strands a bit with the help of these performers. The German radio studio sound is clear and warm, and a rather detailed booklet essay appears in German, French, and English. A strong, fresh take on Purcell from a country where he is not so often heard.

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