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Reviewed: Baroque Spring

Death by chocolate.

Baroque Spring
Radio 3

“We don’t even know what it was that killed him,” said Donald Macleod of Henry Purcell, “but there are a whole array of possibilities including tuberculosis, flu and chocolate.” Eh? Sounds like my kind of guy. Ah, but no, to clarify – this was freak food-poisoning from a tainted cacao morsel. Little more is known. So little is known of Purcell’s life, in fact, that the usually chatty Composer of the Week (weekdays, 12pm) was markedly more music than talk.

Entire Purcell trio sonatas and funeral anthems played out endlessly (“that was Man that is Born of a Woman followed by Thou Knowest Lord sung by the choir of Winchester Cathedral. And now Welcome, Vicegerent of the Mighty King, including Your Influous Approach our Pensive Hope Recalls. Let’s hear it in full.”)

Any biographical detail, or any word at all from Macleod, got so rare you could feel yourself getting older waiting for him to pipe up, like you do hoping Gideon Coe might say just a little more between songs on 6 Music but always find yourself hanging on irritatedly through another Yo La Tengo. Chuck us a bone! The following was drip-fed over 58 minutes: that aged 14, Purcell was declared “official keeper, maker and repairer of the kings virginals and recorders and all other kind of wind instruments whatsoever”. And that Charles II named his prize ketch Chubby after his mistress the Duchess of Portsmouth, and then took everyone for a bad-weather sail around the Kent coast, forcing all on board to vomit keenly over the sides.

But always, too quickly, back to the music – described by Macleod as full of “secret compartments”. Exactly right. Purcell does forever seem to be opening drawers in minutely carved cupboards to find yet another contrapuntal refrain inside the back of the next, and then another – inescapable. Finding yet more and more ways to set terrible lyrics to great music (“the words are frankly dross,” agreed Macleod).

But then who cares for Purcell’s words? We can’t make them out half the time, anyway. They’re a staccato blur thrusting through language barriers on a tidal wave of the King’s virginals and recorders (and all other kinds of wind instruments whatsoever . . .).

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem