Published by Purcell’s widow in 1697, following his untimely death, Ten Sonatas in Four Parts is the composer’s last great contribution to Baroque chamber music. As in his earlier Twelve Sonatas in Three Parts (1683), Purcell uses the trio sonata model, but now adding a basso continuo accompaniment, a recent innovation from Italy. The three solo instruments, two violins and bass viol, dominate proceedings, but are sensitively accompanied here by a continuo group of theorbo (a kind of long-necked lute) and ensemble leader Robert King playing chamber organ and harpsichord.
Unlike in most other recordings, King has reordered the sonatas. They were published, and are usually performed, in the arbitrary order in which Mrs Purcell found the manuscripts, but King has devised a more logical and harmonically coherent sequence.
The performances are engaging but austere. Tempos are relatively slow and ornamentation is minimal. Both the ensemble and the recording provide excellent detail and balance between the parts. But the very forward sound of the solo strings soon becomes tiring. All the bright, consonant intervals, held at length and performed without vibrato, have an angularity that’s increasingly hard on the ear. Not easy listening, then, but lively and impressively detailed readings nonetheless. Recommended, but only in small doses.