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Purcell: Ten Sonatas in Four Parts - Audiophile Audition


06 August 2009
Audiophile Audition
Laurence Vittes
5 Stars

Good news for King's Consort lovers. The Consort has been launched anew as Retrospect Ensemble. Equally good news is that Cambridge (UK)-based Retrospect has linked with Linn Records, already with an outstanding early music stable. The first release is a Purcell program celebrating the 350th anniversary of the composer's birth. "Ten Sonatas in Four Parts" is performed by Retrospect Trio, a group formed under the umbrella of the larger Retrospect brand (marketing is everything these days).

The CD, produced by Philip Hobbs, is being marketed using Linn's high resolution download technology for which the company is world-renowned. The intention is to produce two or three releases each year.  Later this year, in fact, the group will undertake the large-scale recording of a major choral-orchestral work. 

At first, the sound in the Purcell is so good in conventional stereo that you might miss the added value brought by the various benefits of SACD, multichannel Stereo, DSD and HDCD. You can hear the startling difference on the "Friday the Thirteenth" chromatic run just after the beginning of track 26. It will blow your ears and mind wide open!

In stereo, the sound, recorded in St. Martin's Church (built in 1823, i.e. late Georgian) in East Woodhay in Hampshire is detailed, gorgeous and, when required, surprisingly dramatic. On an SACD player, the fabric of Purcell's sound takes on a plastic, tactile, spatial quality in which phrasing nuances and dynamic gradations by one player are immediately and organically responded to by the other three. Wonderful low bass, too, a little growly and a little velvety, which is not always something you can say about early music recordings. At every step of the way, of course, Linn's technology serves Purcell's art--to the extent to which it is possible to separate the two.

The music is Purcell at his richest and most confident, poised on the brink of a future which was a tragically cut short at 33, and the four players of the Retrospect Trio (don't ask why, it's a Baroque thing) throw themselves into the music with enthusiastic expert glee that makes listening a delicious, almost indecent pleasure. In my days as a cellist a century ago, I occasionally wandered in and amongst the company of early musicians, many of them hippies and a pretty wild bunch. I found that playing Purcell was disorienting, lacking the safe but narrow interpretive conventions of music written after 1750 that I had become accustomed to. A century later, it seems that Purcell's has become an essential musical staple.

The new Retrospect Ensemble launched May 1 with a performance of Handel's "Jephtha" at the 2009 Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Led by Matthew Halls (former Artistic Director of The King's Consort), Retrospect intends to "explore the repertoire of four centuries and embracing the practices, styles and aesthetics of former ages with renewed vigor and a fresh approach." Sounds very bold and savvy, as does its statement, "The choice of name ensures that the group will not be identified with one particular area of music or historical period, an approach typical of the ensemble's inquisitive and energetic musicians." They must have a marketing type at work.

Retrospect's first London season will include Handel's "Apollo e Dafne," Bach cantatas, orchestral music by Mozart and Haydn and a performance of Purcell's "Fairy Queen." Retrospect will soon also tour Korea, Israel, Portugal and Switzerland. What a life! And imagine that prevailing opinion used to be: "Mothers, don't let your children grow up to be bass violists."


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Purcell: Ten Sonatas in Four PartsPurcell: Ten Sonatas in Four Parts