Purcell Keyboard Suites

A thoroughly persuasive case for these neglected masterpieces

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Purcell Keyboard Suites

Cocoa plants and Purcell’s keyboard music are the sources of the same “quintessential indulgence”, according to Richard Egarr. The observations of 17th-century chocolate fancier and courtier Madame de Sévigné certainly make a fitting analogy to the bittersweet world of Purcell: “it flatters you for while; it warms you for an instant; then, all of a sudden, it kindles a mortal fever in you”.

While the eight posthumously published suites (with judiciously selected miscellany to create some elbow-room between each) are woefully unknown, they are beautifully crafted. Purcell’s keyboard style rarely reverts to French luxuriance, rather more questing in its unpredictable steers, deliberately wrong-footed harmonic inflections, often quite tough textures and extended lyrical journeys.

Richard Egarr’s devotion to these pieces comes in the form of studied spaciousness which allows these rich (90 per cent cocoa) strains to become gently infused into our listening habits. This is no background tafelmusik, which is why it requires our indulgence, to stop and follow the thread – especially in the sustained narrative of the minor-key suites.

If the Almand of the G major Suite offers homage to the exquisite character-piece Almans of Gibbons, the A minor work is prescient of 18th-century models in its directed figuration and the grandiloquence of its easy conflation of French and Italian styles. Indeed, one of Egarr’s greatest achievements is to challenge the homespun perception of this repertoire and present it as great keyboard music. The C major Suite is a wonderful demonstration of this, as is the gamey tuning of the D major work with its burly final hornpipe. The harpsichord by Joel Katzman (after Ruckers) covers all the bases with its disarming colour, clarity and resonance. An outstanding recital.

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