Purcell: Trio Sonatas

Purcell: Twelve Sonatas of Three Parts (1683)
London Baroque
Harmonia Mundi 901439
Harmonia Mundi "Suite" 7901439


  1. Sonata No. 1 in g minor
    Vivace / Adagio - Presto / Largo
  2. Sonata No. 2 in Bb major
    Largo - Presto / Adagio - Vivace / Allegro
  3. Sonata No. 3 in d minor
    Adagio / Canzona - Adagio / Poco largo - Allegro
  4. Sonata No. 4 in F major
    Canzona / Poco largo / Allegro
  5. Sonata No. 5 in a minor
    Adagio / Largo / Grave - Canzona - Adagio
  6. Sonata No. 6 in C major
    Canzona / Largo / Allegro
  7. Sonata No. 7 in e minor
    Canzona / Largo / Grave / Vivace - Allegro
  8. Sonata No. 8 in G major
    Poco largo - Allegro / Grave - Vivace - Allegro
  9. Sonata No. 9 in c minor
    Largo / Canzona - Adagio / Allegro
  10. Sonata No. 10 in A major
    Largo / Grave - Presto
  11. Sonata No. 11 in f minor
    Canzona / Adagio / Largo
  12. Sonata No. 12 in D major
    Canzona / Poco largo / Grave - Presto / Allegro

Performers: Ingrid Seifert, Richard Gwilt (violins), Charles Medlam (bass viol), Richard Egarr (harpsichord, organ)

Instruments: violins - Jacobus Stainer (Absam, 1661 & c.1660); bass viol - Barak Norman (London, 1718); harpsichord - Joel Katzman (Amsterdam, 1992); organ - William Drake (Buckfastleigh, 1982)

Playing time: 71'

Recording date: March 1993

While Purcell was not as prolific in instrumental music as he was in other genres, he still wrote a goodly amount of it, and there are numerous recordings (as befitting a composer of his stature). I will try to treat this music as well as possible within the space of this web page.

The Twelve Sonatas of Three Parts (published in London in 1683) are Purcell's most highly regarded instrumental compositions. From our perspective, they are loosely regarded as Trio Sonatas in the mold of Corelli (although predating Corelli's publications), and indeed Purcell is considered second only to Corelli in his mastery of the early Trio Sonata form. Purcell's stated aim was to introduce more Italian elements into these sonatas (along with the word itself), and this is undoubtedly the way that contemporaries heard them. From our perspective, it is probably the English elements which are most interesting. It should not be forgotten that Purcell built upon a long-standing English tradition of chamber music (as exemplified by William Lawes), and indeed this is what gives the music much of its contrapuntal strength.

Following English practice, the bass parts in these sonatas are actually divided between specific lines for bass viol and continuo proper (in Corelli's case, there is only a generic continuo part below the two violin lines). This leads to some confusion in the posthumous publication of the Ten Sonatas in Four Parts, but these two publications use identical scoring -- it was only the nomenclature which changed. It is believed that the first two sonatas of the posthumous publication were written along with those of the 1683 publication and intended to form part of the cycle (omitted, apparently, because of their unusual keys and the desire to use the "magic number" of twelve). The other eight sonatas (of the Ten) are probably earlier compositions; at any rate, they show no new developments from the 1683 publication. A recording of these:

Purcell: Ten Sonatas in Four Parts (1697)
London Baroque
Harmonia Mundi 901438

Among the other recordings, those by the Purcell Quartet are especially popular:

Purcell: Complete Sonatas Three & Four Parts / Complete Pavans
Purcell Quartet
Chandos Chaconne 0572 (2 CDs)

Other recordings of merit:

Purcell: Sonatas of III Parts
Ricercar Consort
Ricercar 080088
Purcell: Sonatas of III Parts
Hogwood / Beznosiuk / Podger / Coin
L'Oiseau Lyre 444 449
Purcell: Sonatas in Four Parts / Sonatas in Three Parts
Accademia Farnese - Claudio Ferrarini
Mondo Musica 96027 (3 CDs)

And a recording of these works played on recorders:

Purcell: A Collection of Ayres
La Simphonie du Marais - Hugo Reyne
Virgin Veritas 45182

Finally, perhaps the earliest recording:

Purcell: Sonates en Trio
Merckel / Alès / Navarra / Nef
L'Oiseau-Lyre 207/218 (12 78rpms)

Moving on to the small keyboard output....

Purcell's organ music consists of a handful of short voluntaries (fugato style) of fine craftsmanship; a recording:

Purcell: Complete Organ Works
w/Organ Music of Blow & Locke
John Butt
Harmonia Mundi USA 907103

Purcell also wrote a not-insubstantial volume of harpsichord music. In this case, the inspiration was apparently French. The forms and ornaments are strongly derived from the French harpsichord school (rather than the equally impressive earlier English school), although the English influence still plays a role in the thematic development. The result is many short pieces (primarily dances), grouped in flexible suites. The result is unique, though not of tremendous depth. Two recordings:

Purcell: Harpsichord Suites
Kenneth Gilbert
Harmonia Mundi 901496
Purcell: Works for Harpsichord
John Gibbons
Centaur 2313

There is also a new recording of recently discovered pieces:

The Purcell Manuscript
Davitt Moroney
Virgin Veritas 45172

Finally, to conclude Purcell's instrumental output, his viol fantasies are given a separate citation from the Baroque Overview.

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Todd M. McComb