Friday, 1 November 2019

'The first great example of British exceptionalism' - Purcell's King Arthur re-thought in an engaging performance and accompany CDs from Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli

Purcell: King Arthur - Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli in rehearsal at St John's Smith Square (Photo Gabrieli)
Purcell: King Arthur - Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli in rehearsal at St John's Smith Square (Photo Gabrieli)
Purcell King Arthur; Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 October 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Purcell's semi-opera re-thought in terms of content and performing style, to create something graceful, elegant and vividly theatrical

17th century English semi-opera, that mix of drama, operatic scenes and sheer spectacle which so delighted the audiences in Stuart London, remains rather tricky to pull off today and it is perhaps only the sheer beauty and vitality of Purcell's music that keeps works such as King Arthur or The Fairy Queen alive. For The Fairy Queen we have pretty good documentation for what Purcell actually wrote, because the score was lost (and subsequently re-discovered) and so was not gradually destroyed during the process of performance and revival in the theatre. For King Arthur, things are somewhat different and the original score has been largely lost, probably it fell to pieces at a certain point thanks to ill use in the theatre, and our surviving copies all date from well after Purcell's death.

Purcell: King Arthur - Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli in rehearsal at St John's Smith Square (Photo Gabrieli)
Purcell: King Arthur - Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli in rehearsal
at St John's Smith Square (Photo Gabrieli)
So, presenting King Arthur provides companies with a number of conundrums, namely how to present a semi-opera in concert and what music to use. Recently, Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli decided to re-think King Arthur after experience of performing the work for over 20 years, and the results are a new recording which is issued on the ensemble's own label [see below]. This was launched on Wednesday 30 October 2019 at St John's Smith Square, where Paul McCreesh conducted the Gabrieli Consort and Players with soloists Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Jeremy Budd, James Way, Robert Davies (replacing an ailing Marcus Farnsworth), and Ashley Riches.

King Arthur was planned as part of a group of royal operas commissioned by or for King Charles II (between 1681 and 1684). Two were small scale, performed at Court - John Blow's Venus and Adonis and Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (and both were subsequently revived at Josiah Priest's girls school, though the dating of Purcell's opera remains disputed). Two were large scale pieces, designed for the public theatre, both with librettos by John Dryden. Charles' death disrupted things, and Dryden's libretto for King Arthur lay unused. But in 1690, the theatre in Dorset Gardens had a hit with Purcell's semi-opera Diocletian and, casting round for a follow-up, hit upon King Arthur. The problem is politics intervened, the ending had to be changed because of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 (when William and Mary displaced Charles II's brother James II). And we are left with something of mystery, because the final solo song, 'St George' survives only in music which does not seem to be by Purcell.

In terms of what to perform, Christopher Suckling and Paul McCreesh have created a new edition of the work, borrowing instrumental movements from other works by Purcell so that King Arthur now has its full quota of act tunes and act preludes which come before the drama starts and which help to punctuate things, delineating the acts. For the ending Suckling and McCreesh have dropped 'St George' entirely and replaced it with a celebratory piece from Diocletian with adjusted words. As the music for King Arthur is arranged in a series of discrete scenes, simply separating them with instrumental music works well. Inevitably we focus on the quality of the music, and have to take for granted that dramatically the piece is more incidental. Knowing the plot of Dryden's text does not really help, because the strange nature of semi-opera was that the music was provided by the smaller, incidental characters!

Gabrieli played the work at low pitch, reflecting that Playhouses in 17th century London used this sort of pitch, and it means that instead of altos we had high tenors so that the solo line up was sopranos, high tenor, tenor, basses. There was no chorus, the soloists were joined by two further singers, high-tenor Christopher Fitzgerald-Lombard [whom we last saw singing in the chorus of the Dead in my opera The Gardeners!] and tenor Tom Castle, to create a vocal ensemble of nine singers who did all the choruses.

As reflecting the resources available to Playhouses, the instrumental ensemble was similarly tight with 10 strings (including the work's editor Christopher Suckling on bass viol). The strings played with what was then a new French bow-hold which had just been taken on board in London, and for many of the instrumental items the strings were without continuo. It is thought that the main body of strings were in the music room above the stage of the Playhouse, whilst the continuo was on or beside the stage so it could accompany soloist, thus leading to a clear split.

The result was an engagingly fresh look at King Arthur with transparent textures, finely sprung rhythms, a sense of the dance rhythms underlying everything and a real sense of engagement with the music and, yes, the drama. The singers were 'off the book' and presented each scene in a semi-staged manner, we were not expected to simply sit and admire Purcell's music.The opening hymn to Woden was lively and characterful, with a real dance-y feel and a bright and perky account of 'I call you all to Woden's Hall' from Jeremy Budd, with some fabulous runs. Act Two's contest between the spirits of Philidel and Grimbald was simply fun, with the singers divided into two groups, Anna Dennis was a delightfully frivolous Philidel with Robert Davies a noble Grimbald. The shepherd's song was sung by James Way in rich tones yet with a real sense of intimacy.

Rowan Pierce was a sparky, characterful Cupid with Ashley Riches as the dozy Cold Genius in the delightful Cold Scene, perhaps faster tempi than we are used to, but no less effective indeed. Then Anna Dennis and Mhairi Lawson were wonderfully seductive as the two elegantly phrased sirens. The scene following featured Jeremy Budd's easy, lyrical account of 'Happy the lovers', and Anna Dennis and Robert Davies as a fine pair of lovers, both beautifully expressive.  The final act started with Ashley Riches as Aeolus, 'Ye blust'ring brethren of the skies' which featured some vivid instrumental wind playing, Mhairi Lawson's perky Nereid, and Jeremy Budd, James Way and Ashley Riches quite serious Shepherds led to the riotous Comus scene, which remains a rattling good tune (cue here for a rash of EU flags in the orchestra). Anna Dennis' was devastating in 'Fairest isle', elegant, expressive and concentrated, and the 'new' final item featured Jeremy Budd duetting brilliantly with a trumpet!

Throughout, the playing from the Gabrieli Consort was light, elegant and graceful, full of dance rhythms, putting Purcell's music securely into its theatrical context. The vocal ensemble were pure joy, bringing out the real enjoyment of the music, yet always stylish too. McCreesh's lively tempos, which worked well with the lighter textures, meant the singers giving us some quite dazzling runs at times. The new edition gives us a different way of looking at the piece, but it was the performance which really brought the piece to life.

Purcell: King Arthur - Paul McCreesh & Gabrieli - Winged Lion/Signum
If you missed the concert, then fret not as the CD is just as engaging, capturing the essence of the performance. It features Andrew Pinnock's extensive and informative article about King Arthur (reproduced in the programme for the concert), and a line up of soloists similar to that at Wednesday's concert, with Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson, Jeremy Budd, James Way, Roderick Williams, and Ashley Riches. 

In his introduction to the concert Paul McCreesh described King Arthur as 'the first great example of British exceptionalism, and you know where that’s got us', but there is nothing triumphalist about this performance. Here we have light dancing rhythms, lyrical line and wit, small of scale but big on expressiveness, and wonderfully engaging. A disc to treasure.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - King Arthur
Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Jeremy Budd (high tenor)
James Way (tenor)
Roderick Williams, Ashley Riches (baritone)
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh
Recorded St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, 14-18 January 2019
WINGED LION SIGCD589 2CDs [53.25, 44.13]
Support Planet Hugill by buying this from Amazon.

Purcell King Arthur 1691 from Gabrieli Consort & Players on Vimeo.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • A ravishing and heart-rending evening: Massenet's Manon from the Met, Live in HD (★★★★) - opera review
  • A remarkable reinvention: Verdi's Don Carlos in French in Flanders (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Eccentric, passionate harpsichordist, in a ménage à cinq: the lives of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse - feature article
  • An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it  (★★★★★) CD review
  • Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place (★★) - concert review
  • The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital  (★★) - CD review
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
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