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GRAMOPHONE (04/2021)
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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

Pelham Humfrey (1647/48-74) is among the better known of the English church music composers associated with Purcell, but that does not mean his music is actually well known. This is only the third release in three decades to focus exclusively on it, and, in the Morning and Communion pieces from the E minor Service, claims five premiere recordings. Not that they are the most exciting things you’ll hear. Somewhat unvarying in their restless, mainly syllabic delivery, they are essentially functional, and performed end-to-end like this (not what they were intended for, of course) they are indeed rather tedious – though the already-recorded Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are stronger.

More satisfying are the so-called symphony anthems, which is to say with solo ensemble sections and a small string band. Having studied in France, Humfrey was among the first composers to introduce this style to the Chapel Royal in the 1660s, and his influence on Purcell, a boy singer there under his tutelage, is both inevitable and audible. The three recorded here reveal strengths in surprise harmonic progressions and dramatically affecting vocal line, albeit put mostly to gloomy use, as in the best piece, By the waters of Babylon. The expressive range is not great, however, and Humfrey’s talent appears an uneven one.

The recording was made in the chapel of St James’s Palace in Westminster, a gorgeous-looking room which, however, sounds like it offers the performers little help. There is little bloom to the choral or string tone – with some uncomfortable results in terms of tuning, blend and balance – and the promising line-up of floridly decorating soloists seem to be working hard to generate a sound. No one could doubt the spirit or honesty on show here, however, and there is always a certain pleasure to be had from hearing music from a choir who, however notional the concept, first sang it.

If it is Humfrey you want to hear, you will find more slickness and joy (and none of those Service pieces) from the Consort of Voices under Edward Higginbottom (Pan Classics, 3/19), and sweeter sounds and more lively crafting of line from the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, under Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 3/93).

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