Saturday 18 July 2015

King Arthur with Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli

Paul McCreesh
Purcell King Arthur; Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh; St. John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 16 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Engaging and highly satisfying of Purcell's music from the semi-opera

Purcell's music for King Arthur presents the performer with problems. Performed complete with John Dryden's text it makes for a long evening and requires a company of actors as well as the singers and instrumentalists. And, dare we say it, John Dryden's patriotic propaganda play hardly lives up to Henry Purcell's music. There is now coherent thread running through the music, so divorced from the play we are left with a series of found objects. Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company chose to perform it thus in February 2015 at the Wigmore Hall (see my review).

At St John's Smith Square on 16 July 2015, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players also chose to present only Henry Purcell's music, but in a manner which created a theatrical sense all of its own. Paul McCreesh conducted his ensemble (based around 10 strings, two theorbos, harpsichord plus wind and brass) with a group of singers consisting of Sophie Junker, Helen-Jane Howells, Anna Dennis, Daniel Collins, David Clegg, Jeremy Budd, Nicholas Mulroy, Marcus Farnsworth and Ashley Riches who played all the roles and formed the choral ensemble.

Dressed in bright casual clothing - summer dresses for the women, shirts and trousers for the men - they sat in a loose semi-circle and, singing without scores, formed an ensemble which was present throughout. One of the joys of the performance was the way the singers were always involved, listening and reacting, so each act became a sort of masque rather than a string of found objects. And you felt the performers all enjoying themselves too.

After a lively and graceful account of the overture, Ashley Riches launched us into Act One with his richly impressive baritone. For the first act we got the Saxons sacrificing with a rather verse anthem-like sequence, followed by a jollier ensemble for the Britons. Solos were shared out and all the cast showed a great attention to the words.

The delicate First Act Tune led to Sophie Junker's charming and appealingly sly Philidel (the good sprite) with Marcus Farnsworth as a vividly characterised Grimbald (the bad sprite). The ensemble divided into two group to create much engaging to-ing and fro-ing between groups of good and bad sprites which enlivened the work no end. Nicholas Mulroy gave us some really fine singing in 'How blest are the shepherds' with the chorus echoing his confiding manner and intense sense of involvement. Sophie Junker and Anna Dennis showed seductive charm in their duet and the sequence finished with a vivid chorus.

After a characterful account of the Second Act Tune, we had the most developed scene in the work; the Cold Scene inspired by a similar sequence in Lully's Isis (premiered in 1677, 14 years before King Arthur). With Ashley Riches asleep on a chair in the middle of the stage and Helen-Jane Howells lithe voiced Cupid singing with bright charm we were all set for a highly engaging scene, with Ashley Riche combining his impressively dark toned voice with a nice comic timing.

Following the interval we returned with the Third Act Tune played with great swing to it. Helen-Jane Howells and Anna Dennis were the two sirens, seductive, dangerous and singing with a lovely blending of voices. The passacaglia had a lively bounce to it, Nicholas Mulroy provided a shapely solo whilst Marcus Farnsworth and Sophie Junker contributed a stylish and finely matched duet.

The short but catchy Fourth Act Tune led to the final masque which was blown in by Ashley Riches as Aelos. For the symphony the solo violin, trumpet and oboe (Catherine Martin, Dave Hendry, James Eastaway) with some lovely interactions. After Helen-Jane Howells charming Nereid, Jeremy Budd, Nicholas Mulroy and Marcus Farnsworth gave a performance of the trio 'For folded flocks, and fruitful plains' which made me properly notice it for the first time. Harvest Home was sung with gusto by all the me (including counter-tenors singing in their baritone range), clearly having great fun. Then out of the chaos came Anna Dennis as a very poised Venus to sing 'Fairest Isle', giving us not just beautiful singing but a sense of the inner life of the words. Marcus Farnsworth and Sophie Junker returned to their intense interaction in their duet as He and She.

The final item is a bit of a puzzle, the rather galumphing setting of the song to St George is now widely believed to be not by Purcell. So Paul McCreesh has taken the trumpet song and chorus from Act Four of Purcell's Diocletian which with two trumpets and suitably tweaked words gave us a nicely satisfying finale. There was a nice touch when the singers opened music (for the first time) which was emblazoned with Union Flag covers.

Originally produced in the 1690's but with John Dryden's text having a far longer history, King Arthur only really came about because of the huge success of Diocletian and whilst its original purpose was propaganda for the Stuart this does not really help modern day performances and performers need to bring their own slant onto the work.

We heard some very fine Purcell singing and playing indeed, welded into a sophisticated whole by Paul McCreesh. This was a finely satisfying performance, with the singers bringing great warmth and humour, all presided over with humorous aplomb by Paul McCreesh.

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