Friday 7 October 2022

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: a glorious pot-pourri of Purcell's music alongside Coleridge's poem read by Rory Kinnear

The RIme of the Ancient Mariner - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with various pieces by Henry Purcell; Rory Kinnear, Zoë Brookshaw, Bethany Horak-Hallett, Jeremy Budd, Jonathan Brown; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment dir. Steven Devine; Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 5 October 2022

A demonstration of the power of Purcell & poetry

One of the most beloved of English-language poems, the weird nightmare-parable of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was the framing device for this concert of music over a hundred years older than the poem – a glorious pot-pourri of some of Henry Purcell's best-known music, sprinkled with some less familiar items at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on 5 October 2022.

Holding court with an impassioned and theatrical recitation of the complete poem, Rory Kinnear commanded the audience's attention throughout, maintaining a ferociously intense poise even when not speaking. Interspersed through the dramatic deliver of the text, and matched in theme, mood or lyrics to the action or emotion of the poem, the musicians of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) directed from the harpsichord by Steven Devine, along with a fine quartet of solo voices, Zoë Brookshaw, Bethany Horak-Hallett, Jeremy Budd, and Jonathan Brown, presented a series of instrumental and vocal works, starting with the extended ode Welcome, welcome glorious morn and including almost two dozen other shorter pieces.

The programme was devised, or curated perhaps is a better term, by OAE's principal oboist, Katharina Spreckelsen, who also performed flawlessly throughout the evening, particularly in the beautiful rendition of Bid the virtues, in which she and soprano soloist Zoë Brookshaw demonstrated their remarkable breath control as they interwove in an extended duet of ecstatic clarity.

In fact, clarity seemed to be the watchword of the whole evening – the OAE, with their period forces, acting very much as a chamber ensemble, or a meeting of like-minded soloists gathered under director Steven Devine's watchful eyes and stylish harpsichord continuo. For a period ensemble of this size, the Queen Elizabeth Hall is a large space to fill with sound, and even with a pair of trumpets and timpani, and a quartet of double reeds augmenting the modest body of strings, the orchestra never really roared with sound and fury – but Kinnear's recitation more than made up for some of the more elegant and polite playing from the instrumentalists.

In an evening of highlights, it's hard to pick particular moments that stood out. Mention must be given to the gravitas and sepulchral tone of the bass Jonathan Brown in Arise ye Subterranean winds and to the exquisitely manicured melismas of tenor Jeremy Budd, floating above rippling extempore harpsichord in Tis nature's voice, while, on the basis of her melting beautiful aria over the repeated ground of Evening Hymn, emerging alto Bethany Horak-Hallett will certainly be a singer to watch out for in this repertoire. But, for sheer, hushed, almost translucently pianissimo sound, the OAE string players' performance of the Frost Dance from King Arthur was the most intensely delightful moment of a delightful programme.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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