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Purcell: Ten Sonatas in Three Parts - International Record Review


01 October 2011
International Record Review
Marc Rochester

It was a tired joke of my music history lecturer back in the 1970s that trio sonatas were performed by just about any number of people except three; organists regard them as solo compositions while chamber musicians assume at least four people will be involved.  Irrespective of the numbers actually playing, what matters is the balancing of the upper two voices and the harmonic and rhythmic stability of the lower one, whether is the organ pedals or, as here, a keyboard instrument and a bass viol.  If there were the only factors to be considered, then these four members of the Retrospect Trio (and how my old music history lecturer would have chortled at that anomaly) have got it absolutely right.  As an exhibition of the technique of trio sonata playing, this is about as good as it gets, and Linn's delicately refined recording casts this instinctively balanced playing in a lovely light.

There is, of course, much more to it than that, and as these same four players showed in their earlier debut disc of the posthumously published Ten Sonatas in Four Parts (reviewed in July/August 2009), they have a strong affinity with the distinct idiom of Purcell's instrumental music.  They relish those tantalizing dissonances, those exquisite false relations and all the ingenious harmonic twists and turns, never overplaying their hand but making sure we don't miss a single one of Purcell's tricks.

In this set of 12 Sonatas in Three Parts, published with an introductory essay by Purcell in 1683, the music is frequently harmonically adventurous and ever willing to explore the effects of crunching clashes of notes.  The Retrospect Trio gleefully reveals these elements with a naturalness which is all the more vivid for being unforced, the witty C major Sonata perhaps the most unaffectedly enjoyable one on the whole disc.

Matthew Halls provides a thoroughly researched and eminently readable booklet note which draws attention to the very international language Purcell adopted, with the English court's love of (just about) all things French spicing up characteristically English writing, while an influx of Italian violinists added another dimension to the musical vocabulary.  It was these Italians, Halls tells us, who brought violin virtuosity to England, and Sophie Gent and Matthew Truscott, both among the finest Baroque violinists of our own time, display it with tremendous verve, nowhere more so than in the sprightly fugal writing which constitutes the fourth of the five movements of the G minor Sonata.  Immediately afterwards this Sonata heads into an archetypically English and utterly Purcellian chaconne, as if to emphazise the international credentials of the music.  There are some distinctly English dance movements - as in the closing Allegro of the B flat major Sonata - and even a hint of the French Overture style in the first movement of the F major Sonata, but all are presented with a convincing feel for the idiom and a wholly captivating sense of overall architecture which gives the entire disc a far more coherent feel than its listing of 61 individual tracks - only one exceeding two minutes in length - might imply.

The bass viol is often here far more than a mere continuo instrument - Halls suggests that it was the influx of foreign publications which prompted Purcell to prepare his second set of Sonatas with separate part books for both bass viol and keyboard - and playing on a 1712 Barak Norman instrument, Jonathan Manson elevates the instrument to a position where in places it becomes the complete equal of the violins (as in the closing Allegro of the F major Sonata).  Supporting everything and helping the music to unfold with utter stylishness, Halls himself alternates freely between a Kenneth Tickell chamber organ and a copy of a Grimaldi harpsichord by mark Ducornet.

All four musicians and their instruments combine to complete a survey of Purcell's three- or four-part sonatas which is not only authoritative but unfailingly enjoyable.  This is an utterly delightful disc.


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Twelve Sonatas in Three PartsTwelve Sonatas in Three Parts