Wednesday 15 April 2020

I can think of no finer way to enjoy the music than to listen to this lovely disc: Purcell's The Fairy Queen from Paul McCreesh & the Gabrieli Consort & Players

Purcell King Arthur; Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh; Winged Lion/Signum
Purcell King Arthur; Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh; Winged Lion/Signum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 April 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Applying the latest research, Paul McCreesh and his forces give a performance of engaging freshness and vitality

Having given us King Arthur last year [see my review], Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players have turned their attention to Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen for a new recording on Winged Lion, with soloists Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson, Jeremy Budd, Charles Daniels, James Way, Roderick Williams and Ashley Riches. In fact, both semi-operas were recorded over a period of two weeks in January 2019, thus bringing an admirable commonality of both approach and personnel to both works.

Like King Arthur, The Fairy Queen has been in Gabrieli's repertoire for over 25 years so that this recording is the result of combining musicological research with practical experience. The Fairy Queen was premiered in 1692, by The United Company which combined London's two theatre companies thus giving it the wherewithal to mount such luxurious musical spectacles as King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. The basis for The Fairy Queen was Shakespeare's play, albeit in radically altered format, with the music providing masques at the end of each Act. Whereas in King Arthur the minor characters sing and the resulting music can sometimes seem oddly disjointed without Dryden's play, in The Fairy Queen the music almost sit separately from the play. This may be because at the first performances in 1692 Oberon and Tytania were played by children rather than singing actors.

Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players recording Purcell's semi-operas (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players recording Purcell's semi-operas
(Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
The work was revived again in 1693, when alterations were made to the music, but at some point the score was lost. It surfaced again in the 20th century, this means that the manuscript never had time to be destroyed and consumed by use in the theatre. So we actually have a manuscript partly in Purcell's hand but, as an illuminating article in the CD booklet explains, the score seems to be more working shorthand than an autograph full score so performers need to make a lot of decisions.

As with King Arthur, the performance here is the result of Gabrieli's re-thinking of period performance styles for 17th century London. Gabrieli play at low pitch, reflecting that Playhouses in 17th century London used this sort of pitch, and it means that instead of altos we have high tenors so that the solo line up is sopranos, high tenor, tenor, basses. There is no chorus as such, the ensemble of soloists is joined by three further singers, high-tenor Christopher Fitzgerald-Lombard, tenor Tom Castle and bass Jimmy Holliday, to create a vocal ensemble of twelve singers who perform all the choruses. As reflecting the resources available to Playhouses, the instrumental ensemble is similarly tight with 12 strings (including the work's editor Christopher Suckling on bass viol). The strings are played with what was then a new French bow-hold which had just been taken on board in London.

The results are light and engaging, with a lovely spring to the rhythms creating a sound world which is rather different to that used in Handel's operas (and Handel arrived in London a mere 15 years after Purcell's death). This was a period when styles and technology were changing rapidly and this recording benefits from Gabrieli's willingness to re-think performance styles in terms of what we know about 1690s London playhouses, rather than applying a generic 'period' style and making do.

Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players recording Purcell's semi-operas (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players recording Purcell's semi-operas
(Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
The solo line-up is an admirable mixture of youth and experience, but with everyone mixing together to create an enjoyably engaging performance. Individuals pop up in solo moments, but it is the sense of delightful ensemble which stays with you. Ashley Riches has great fun with the Drunken Poet, whilst in the masque in Act Two Carolyn Sampson is a poised and haunting Night, Anna Dennis a stylish Mystery, Jeremy Budd is highly engaging as Secrecy, and Ashley Riches returns in very different mode as Sleep. In Act Three, Sampson is seductive in 'Ye gentle spirits of the air' whilst Charles Daniels and Ashley Riches have great fun as Corydon and Mopsa, with Mhairi Lawson characterful in 'When I have often heard young maids complaining', and Jeremy Budd rounds the act off with 'A thousand, thousand ways'.

In Act Four, Sampson stylishly chases the night away, whilst Rowan Pierce is a charming Spring with Budd as Summer, James Way as a vibrant Autumn and Roderick Williams as Winter is hauntingly characterful. Carolyn Sampson poised yet moving simplicity in 'The Plaint' is lovely. Anna Dennis opens Act Five as Juno, and then we reach the glorious final masque with Jeremy Budd, James Way and Rowan Pierce as the Chinese Man and Woman, plus solos from Anna Dennis and Mhairi Lawson and Roderick Williams an impressive Hymen, all leading to climactic final chorus and chaconne.

But of course the music from The Fairy Queen is not just vocal, there are dances a-plenty and all those act tunes which were designed to keep the punters happy before the show and between the acts. And the instrumentalists certainly engage, so they and McCreesh keep things moving whilst bringing out the work's emotional resonances.

The CD booklet is full of good things, there is an article by Andrew Pinnock about the historical background which brought semi-opera about, Paul McCreesh and Christopher Suckling on the musical edition used and on what basis they made their decisions, plus articles from various performers about performing the music and the instruments used, including copies of trumpets of the period.

There is, perhaps, a tendency when listening to Purcell's The Fairy Queen to ask the question 'What does it have to do with Shakespeare's play?'. The brief answer, of course, is 'nothing'. But the performers on this recording dig admirably into what exactly it meant to perform The Fairy Queen in 1692 and 1693, without ever letting this academic investigation inhibit them so that the resulting performance has a remarkable vitality and freshness. There is an engaging quality to both the singing and the instrumental playing, making the whole a satisfying unity.

Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players recording Purcell's semi-operas (Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort & Players recording Purcell's semi-operas
(Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke)
Diction is excellent (one of the CD booklet articles is by soprano Mhairi Lawson on the effect on diction of singing at lower pitch), you certainly don't need the printed words and all concerned certainly relish the words and make them count.

I am with Paul McCreesh when it comes to wishing, if only once, to see performance of The Fairy Queen which returns it as close as possible to the work which was performed in 1692 and 1693. It would, I think, surprise us and be far closer to the world of 20th century musical theatre than to what we think of as opera.

But in the mean time, I can think of no finer way to enjoy the music than to listen to this lovely disc.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) - The Fairy Queen (1692/93) [139.03]
Anna Dennis (soprano)
Mhairi Lawson (soprano)
Rowan Pierce (soprano)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Jeremy Budd (high tenor)
Charles Daniels (high tenor/tenor)
James Way (high tenor/tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Gabrieli Consort
Gabrieli Players, Catherine Martin, leader
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Recorded at the church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, 8-11 & 18 January 2019
WINGED LION/SIGNUM SIGCD615 2CDs [69.28, 69.35]

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