John Eliot Gardiner may be and have been one of the champions of period practice and playing on period instruments, but this recording was made in 1976 and you can year it. The Monteverdi Orchestra still played on modern instruments (it was renamed The English Baroque Soloists when it switched to period instruments the year later) and Gardiner's interpretation has many traits that link it to the romantic tradition of the 2nd half of the 20th Century rather than to period practice as it developed from the 1980s onwards.
First, what he plays in lieu of the "Music for the funeral of Queen Mary" is a hodge-podge deriving from the old edition of Thurston Dart (Gardiner's teacher at King's College and it certainly explains it) that was used when the Purcell composition was revived at the end of the 1950s. In fact surprisingly little is known of the music and composers played in March 1685 at the funeral of the beloved Queen Mary, and only three pieces of Purcell were included: the March and Canzona for brass, and an anthem on the final lines ("thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts") from the prayer in the Common Prayer Book to be said or sung "when the corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth".
But, presumably because Purcell had already set that complete funeral prayer in the form of three Funeral Sentences, a piece he had been working on since his late teens, Dart included the two other Sentences in his edition of the Funeral Music, although they were never played at the ceremony, and Gardiner is entirely inauthentic in including them in his own concoction, as well as in repeating the opening March at the end of what should be called his "Funeral Suite" and in using the Canzona as an interlude, once repeated, within the "suite", instead of giving it concluding position has it had in 1685.
Not that I mention this as a criticism, just as information: what Gardiner performs is NOT, strictly speaking, the "funeral music of Queen Mary", but it makes for a beautiful and very effective funeral suite nonetheless. The Funeral Sentences are magnificent funeral pieces, as harmonically daring as anything written by anybody in that era, and it is good to have it, in whatever context, authentic or inauthentic.
Gardiner's "inauthenticity" extends to matters of interpretation as well. There is some dispute among musicologists and performers as to whether ad libitum drums were added to the two brass processional pieces, March and Canzona. Anyway, no drums are indicated in the score, but it had been the habit since the recordings based on Dart's edition in the late 1950s to add them, and Gardiner does. His brass ensemble is made of trumpets and sackbuts, where "Flat Mournfull Trumpets" were used in 1685 - trumpets with a slide, like the trombone or the sackbut, but sliding backwards over the player's shoulder.
The score of the Funeral Sentences distinguishes between "verse" and "chorus", by which one is led to the conclusion that "verse" was attributed to soloists - that's what Andrew Parrott does in his 1988 recording, Purcell: Odes and Funeral Music /Tavener Consort, Choir & Players * Parrott. But Gardiner has the verse sung by chorus, and I'm not even sure that he uses a smaller portion of it. Finally, he is prone to adopting very expansive and solemn tempi, with slowly and ominously tolling drums in the March, building a crescendo as in Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Bydlo, to evoke the procession passing by the listener. His Funeral Sentences are also grand, powerful and expansive. All this is very effective and impressive, but it seems marked by the 20th Century romantic traditions more than by any true "authenticity" in the reconstruction of how the music might have been played in 1685. The funeral March with its tolling timps evokes Siegfried more than Mary. That doesn't diminish in the least the music's beauty. But Gardiner's Purcell is more like Furtwängler's Beethoven than like Norrington's - which may be an incentive for some and a deterrent to others.
Same comments apply to Gardiner's Ode, "Come Ye Sons of Art": a preference for slow tempi in the adagio sections of the overture that hark back to the romantic traditions, brilliant trumpet covering more demure oboe in the fast section (the instrument must have sounded widely different, and nowhere as powerful, in 1685, or Purcell's scoring makes no sense), a body of strings that sounds a bit thick and oversized - Vivaldi played by Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields rather than by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert or Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. The first and eponymous Aria is not very lively in tempo, but has character through its crisp articulation. There is, also, a small effort at ornamenting in the repeats of the countertenor Aria "Strike the Viol" (track 5).
Again I am not pointing the "inauthenticity" of Gardiner's approach with a disparaging intent. Authentic or not, 17th or 20th Century, the music as offered here is quite beautiful and enjoyable. The Monteverdi Choir is always powerful and grandiose, and the soloists are all fine. One Gramophone critic complained that Thomas Allen, in his Aria "The day that such a blessing gave" (track 6), sounded bombastic. I don't find him that at all, but operatic, Handelian almost, and I don't find it inappropriate at all. Of Felicity Lott the same critic said that she "is somehow less gracefully poised and beguiling in "Bid the virtues" than Purcell's elaborate music seems to demand". Again I don't find so, I find her singing beautiful, peerless, beyond reproach. I would have liked the Gramophone reviewer to elaborate on his "somehow". "Somehow" is when there is something you can't really account for, and it often points to a failure of hearing rather than of performing.
TT is a short, LP-tailored 45 minutes.