Purcell: King Arthur (1691)

Purcell: King Arthur (1691)
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh
Concert: St John’s Smith Square, 30 October 2019
CD: Signum/Winged Lion SIGCD589. 2CD. 97’38

Purcell King Arthur 1691

The new recording by the Gabrieli Consort & Players of Purcell’s King Arthur was launched at an impressive concert performance at St John’s, Smith Square. Lacking the two biggest-name singers from the recording (Carolyn Sampson and Roderick Williams), the concert was otherwise the same as the CD apart from the late replacement bass Robert Davies, standing in for Marcus Farnsworth and a smaller orchestra. Omitting all the spoken text of the original play, the music of King Arthur makes for a musically excellent, but texturally confusing, listen. None of the main characters of the King Arthur story appears. The music occurred at intervals during the play, generally as little masques, only occasionally as one-off songs responding to moments in the play.

Although you wouldn’t know it from the concert performance, the plot of the play is based around the mythical Ancient British King Arthur and his battle against the Saxons after their King, Oswald of Kent, captured Arthur’s fiancée Emmeline, a Cornish Princess. It was first performed in 1691. The concert programme notes did not include the plot of the play, although the CD book does, as a separate item, rather than in the flow of the sung text. It can also be found by scrolling down the Wikipedia entry here.

Although the Gabrielis have been performing King Arthur for decades, these performances are based on a new edition by Christopher Suckling (who was playing bass violin) and Paul McCreesh which intends to restore the original 1691 state. There is no single score of the work, and the surviving sources (none in Purcell’s own hand) throw up all sorts of problems.

The singers of the individual pieces are not named in the concert or CD notes, so there was some guesswork over who was who. Anna Dennis was the key soprano in the concert, notably with the lovely Fairest Isle, her grasp of period style apparent in her ornamentation during the second verse.  Rowan Pierce also impressed as Cupid.  Anna Dennis and Robert Davies were the Act IV lovers, with Jeremy Budd introducing them with his How happy the lover. I will resist the temptation to guess the CD singers, but I did find that excessive vibrato from several of them rather off-putting, something that wasn’t quite so obvious in the concert.

The orchestra for the concert was slightly smaller than on the CD with, for example, a single trumpeter rather than two. One of the most beautiful of the instrumental pieces is the Soft Music (from Bonduca) that opens Act IV. It is here that the exquisite tone of the strings is most clearly demonstrated, playing at a low, French pitch of A392 and with a bow-hold that made a significant difference to their articulation, and sounding rather like a consort of viols. It is followed by the gorgeous Two daughters of this aged stream who try to entice (the un-named) Arthur to bathe naked with them (for we are so) and the Passacaglia: How happy the lover. It is one of the finest musical sequences from the whole of the English late 17th-century era.

Another magical moment comes in the final Act when (unbeknown to the audience) King Arthur defeats Oswald but immediately offers him forgiveness. A masque is called for, opening with Aeolus, the god of the winds, who calms the winds with Ye blust’ring brethen of the skies, the second part of which (Serene and calm) features two recorders in a moment of instrumental inspiration.

The instrumental innovations, most of which came from the players themselves, are described in detail in the CD book. They include omitting the continuo group from most of the instrumental pieces, giving a more focussed sound to the string group. The wind instruments employed coarser, historically appropriate reeds, giving a more martial sound, apparent in the concert when an oboe had to cover for the missing second trumpet. The trumpet/s were valveless, instruments without holes, commissioned specifically for the project and made by the Gabrieli’s principal trumpeter Jean-Francois Madeuf.

Although it was performed as a concert version, there were some moment of ‘acting’, notably near the start with the chorus in Hither this way (the two sides of the chorus conflicting as to which way was intended) and near the end with the inevitable high jinks of the drinking song of Comus and the Peasants. Some of the usually overblown pieces were performed with commendable restraint. The Cold Genius (Ashley Riches), for example, managed to avoid the usual overacting, and there were no bucolic Borsetshire accents until the drinking song. That, however, did include an interjection from Paul McCreesh and some timely waiving of EUflags – concert finished about an hour before the most recent date that the UK was supposed to have left the EU!

Paul McCreesh’s direction was excellent. I liked the way he stood aside in the smaller-scale moments and letting his performers just get on with it. During the concert I did wonder if a little more time could have been allowed between the various musical moments – they did rather flow into each other. The CD book includes excellent articles about the instruments used and other performance issues, together with the full plot of the play. If you have strong views on vibrato, I suggest you listen to a few tracks before buying.