Wednesday, January 08, 2003


Variations on themes by Henry Purcell have a long and honourable tradition in the modern concert music world. Even so, it was a bright idea of BBC Music Magazine to work with composer Colin Matthews in curating a collection derived from 'Hail! Bright Cecilia', Purcell's ode to the patron saint of music whose anniversary (22 November) was much celebrated in the 17th century, it seems. The result is a fine CD available through the magazine (BBC MM223, recorded November 2002).

The suite, a setting of texts by Nicholas Brady, received its first performance near St Paul's in London in 1792.The work, performed on this disc by the King's Consort under Robert King, begins with an overture of considerable contrapuntal cunning. The twelve songs that follow involve both soloists and chorus on a scale that was relatively unusual in English music at the time. Handel went on to exploit its potential to the full of course. The performances by well-known singers James Bowman (counter-tenor), Rogers Covey-Crump and Mark Milhoefer (tenors), Susan Gritton (soprano), Colin Campbell (baritone) and Michael George (bass) are fulsome and crisp.

The real excitement, however, is 'Bright Cecelia: Variations on a Theme by Purcell' - eight perspectives lasting eighteen minutes by Colin Matthews, Judith Weir, Poul Ruders, David Sawer, Michael Torke, Anthony Payne and Marcus Lindberg. I hesitate to use the word 'suite', since they were not written in this way or for this purpose, but the overall effect is very suite-like - from Matthews' orchestration of a Purcell 'Tema' right through to Lindberg's aptly titled 'Grand Finale', which resolves a dense piece of writing (incorporating references to Mussorgsky's 'Great Gate of Kiev' and the Purcell theme in the film 'A Clockwork Orange') in G major.

Each composer has a different approach. Matthews takes Purcell's harmonic language across five centuries while leaving it recognisable; Weir is characteristically textural; Ruders is quiet and restrained; Sawer exploits tonal clashes and riffs on dotted rhythms; Torke is vigorously tonal; Payne freewheels with counterpoint; and Lindberg oozes symphonic power.

Many of the cameos are virtually segued, and the order has evidently been chosen carefully. The BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda tackles the different styles with thoughtful commitment.

These pieces received their world premier live at the last night of the BBC Proms in 2002. I normally have little time for this jingoistic topping to an otherwise wonderful concert season, but this event (like Birtwistle's 'Panic', which set the cat among the pigeons in 1995) was well worth hearing. Hopefully these 21st century Variations will now be recognised as a suite and make their way into the repertoire.

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