Purcell's successor as organist of Westminster Abbey is James O'Donnell whom I met last week in his tiny office by the cloisters. He has a computer but no piano so he was not able to audition me for the choir's deputy list as I had hoped. I had even brought along a library copy of Purcell's Ode for St Cecilia's Day 1683 with a view to singing the alto solo Here the Deities Approve as an audition piece. 'Send in your CV,' said O'Donnell as we turned to the main point of our meeting: a discussion of the music for the Abbey choir's live broadcast of Choral Evensong on Wednesday 18 March, repeated the following Sunday. It falls in the middle of Radio 3's second big Purcell week of the year.
O'Donnell has put down The Bell Anthem, the Canticles in B flat, a composed setting of the first ten colourful verses of Psalm 103 ('Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things / Making thee young and lusty as an eagle') and, following a procession to Purcell's grave in the north aisle where the organ used to stand, the heartbreakingly simple version of Thou Knowest Lord the Secrets of our Hearts composed for Queen Mary's funeral in 1694 and sung at his own a year later though he was only 36.
'The choir feels that Purcell is one of us,' says O'Donnell. 'and that he is part of a line which we at the Abbey are continuing. For me he is the great genius, a highly individual composer, superior in imagination and execution, some of his music sublime.'
Much of that music is currently to be heard on Radio 3 - I am enjoying Fiona Talkington's nightly versions of the Dido aria When I am Laid in earth, especially Alison Moyet's on Tuesday - and from Monday will be more or less hogging the air-waves. Purcell's compositions, both sacred and secular, will appear on the daily Classical Collection (11am) while other aspects of his life and work will be subject of talks on The Essay (11pm). CD Review on Saturday 21 March compares recordings of Dido and Aeneas, and the soprano / disc-jockey Emma Kirkby spins Purcell requests on her Sunday edition of Radio 3 Requests. On Sunday 22 March in The Choir (6.30pm), the BBC Singers perform a number of completions of the Purcell anthem Hear My Prayer, a work which more than any brings home the tragedy of the composer's early death. 'It's the first section of a larger anthem which was either incomplete or lost at his death,' says O'Donnell. 'You get to that first
cadence and expect something to follow and there's nothing. One is left only to wonder what might have been after such an amazing opening.'
Performances during the week include the Iranian-born keyboard star Mahan Esfahani playing Purcell in the Early Music Show on Saturday afternoon (21 March), London Sinfonietta playing contemporary responses to Purcell's music for viol consort in a recorded concert at 10.30pm the same evening, the concert having been recorded at LSO St Luke's, on Wednesday 18 March, a live transmission of The Sixteen's Purcell tribute on Friday 20 March, and a late night rendition of his bawdy tavern catches (from midnight on Sat 21).
When I think of the catches, a picture of the gentlemen of the Abbey choir relaxing comes to mind. I deputised quite regularly for this or that alto in the days of Douglas Guest and Simon Preston. Since then, my CV has become quite a jumble certainly in comparison to that of O'Donnell himself. He grew up in Essex and sang with the illustrious Southend Boys' Choir under Michael Crabbe. He first learnt the organ with his grandfather who had an instrument at home. He attended the Royal College of Music as a junior and won the organ scholarship to Jesus College Cambridge. He thought he might enter the law thereafter but fate had other plans, taking him first to Westminster Cathedral for 17 years and thence to the Abbey.
My CV is a mixture of short-term teaching jobs and freelance journalism. It makes me look like a drifter. Some things I'm proud of, others not so much. I recently started teaching a course on the History of Music at Morley College in Waterloo, the very place in fact where, in 1911, the first modern performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen was staged under Gustav Holst. My colleagues there have responded favourably to the suggestion that we mount a new performance around St Cecilia's Day this year. I shall keep readers abreast of developments. Meanwhile, I can understand O'Donnell's (or any other choir director's, come to that) reluctance to entertain a member of the press among his singers. I recall as if it were yesterday that sunny Sunday morning in the Market Tavern after Eucharist at Southwark Cathedral ten years ago when news came through the grapevine of the dismissal of O'Donnell's predecessor Martin Neary for alleged financial irregularities. I was on the phone to the Evening Standard in a flash. It was my one and only scoop.