Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Purcell: The Fairy Queen
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh

St John’s, Smith Square. 1 November 2018

The Gabrieli Consort and Players could probably perform The Fairy Queen in their sleep, such is their experience of Purcell’s music, and this particular work, over many years. They have performed it at the BBC Proms, the Barbican, the Spitalfields Festival and many other venues around the world. They now plan to record it, along with King Arthur, early in the New Year, with the same forces as appeared in this St John’s, Smith Square performance. Their crowdfunding campaign page can be found here.

One of the continuing successes of the Gabrieli’s and their director Paul McCreesh is their ability to reinvent themselves and to continually question and push boundaries in their approach to their music making. For this particular recording (and this concert) they stress that “Gabrieli also brings a forensic understanding of contemporaneous performance techniques to this repertoire, including a new bow hold for string players which transforms articulation and influences tempi; wind instruments using more basic, coarser reeds, for a more martial sound; and natural trumpets performing on instruments without holes, playing entirely through the adjustment of embouchure – a high wire act!“. This was also the premiere of a new performing edition, prepared by McCreesh and Christopher Suckling, their principal bass violinist. It was performed at the low ‘French’ pitch of 392Hz and the violins played using French bow holds.  If this suggests an academic approach to music making, the experience of this concert proved to be anything but. It was a compelling and exuberant performance, semi-staged, albeit with only one ‘prop’ – in the shape of an enormous bleached-white wig for Mopsa, aka Charles Daniels.

Omitting all the spoken text of the original performance, we heard the sequence of masques that concluded each Act (presented by Titania and Oberon who, incidentally, originally played by children aged about 9) with the various instrumental preludes and dances. As is usual, it was performed its the 1693 revival form, with the Drunken Poet in Act 1, and The Plaint that Purcell added after the Act 4 masque.  All seven singers had their solo moments, the key ones being Carolyn Sampson, Anna Dennis, Charles Daniels, James Newby and Ashley Riches, together with some fine contributions from Rowan Pierce, Jeremy Budd, James Way, and Mhairi Lawson. The well-known stand-out moments were beautifully sung, notably with Carolyn Sampson’s Plaint, Ashley Riches ‘Hush no more’, and Anna Dennis’s ‘If love’s a sweet passion’, but some of the less-known moments came vividly to light, proving that you can never listen to a Purcell composition enough without finding new moments.  The acting and interaction between the singers were very well-conceived, presumably arranged by the singers themselves. Both in their solo and chorus moments, the singers made excellent contact with the audience, help by singing from memory.

Instrumentally, this was outstanding, with excellent use of the continuo instruments and impressive continuo realisations, the bulk of which came from by Jan Waterfield, harpsichord, Paula Chateauneuf, one of three theorbo/guitar players, and Christopher Suckling, playing bass violin. Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson also made significant contributions on recorders, notably when playing from the balcony in the Act 2 masque. The strings were centrally placed, produced a gently elegiac tone, the lower pitch adding a degree of aural solemnity. Paul McCreesh’s direction was extremely well-judged, not least for his willingness to just sit and listen during the continuo-supported moments.