Coronation Music for Charles II

Oltremontano, Psallentes, Wim Becu
66:36
Accent ACC 24300
Music by Adson, Augustine Bassano, Byrd, Child, Fantini, Humfrey, William Lawes, Locke, Mersenne, Parsons + anon

This is a triumph of style over substance. It must have seemed a good idea to put together a programme reconstructing the coronation of Charles II in Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661, packaging it with the glamorous painting of the enthroned king in his coronation robes. But someone needs to have done their homework properly for a ‘reconstruction’ of this sort to be more than a cynical marketing ploy. A good deal is known about the music that was performed for the coronation (the evidence is conveniently assembled in Matthias Range’s book Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations: From James I to Elizabeth II (Cambridge, 2012)), so I can say with confidence that none of the choral pieces recorded here were sung on that day. Furthermore, a feature of the service was the participation of the newly-formed Twenty-Four Violins (for which Henry Cooke wrote two new anthems, ‘Behold, O God our defender’ and ‘The king shall rejoice’), but the CD only uses cornetts, sackbuts and organ, with the occasional trumpet fanfare. Bizarrely, Pelham Humfrey’s setting of ‘The king shall rejoice’ is recorded rather than Cooke’s, and with winds rather than strings.

Also, most of the music chosen to represent what was played during the coronation banquet in Westminster Hall is hopelessly old-fashioned for 1661 (it is mostly by Elizabethan or Jacobean composers), is in an inappropriate idiom, or is played on the wrong instruments – or all three. We can imagine Charles II, who ‘had an utter detestation of Fancys’ according to Roger North and loved the fashionable French-style dance music played by his Twenty-Four Violins, choking on his food had he had to listen to cornetts and sackbuts playing Byrd’s Browning or a six-part fantasia by William Lawes. Just about the only pieces that justify their place on this CD are Matthew Locke’s five-part dances ‘For his Majesty’s Sagbutts & Cornetts’, possibly written for the king’s entry into London the night before the coronation, but they have been recorded many times before. All in all, this CD is a missed opportunity. I might have recommended it simply as an anthology of 16th- and 17th-century English music were it not for the fact that the choral pieces chosen are mostly rather poor, the choir’s words are difficult to understand, and the tuning of the cornetts and sackbuts is sometimes sour.

Peter Holman