Arne: Judgement of Paris

Thomas Arne: The Judgement of Paris
Brook Street Band, John Andrews
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7361. 67’50

If it wasn’t for his Rule Britannia (1710-1778), Thomas Arne would probably be more-or-less forgotten today. Although he wrote music for nearly 100 stage works, most of his scores are lost, many destroyed in the 1808 Covent Garden fire. Such was the fate of the full score of The Judgement of Paris, although parts if it had been published. The version performed here is based on that publication, with the missing recitatives and choruses reconstructed by Ian Spink for his Musica Britannica edition. It was first performed at Drury Lane Theatre in March 1742 and, three months later, in Dublin alongside his masque Alfred. His wife Cecilia Young sang the role of Venus.

The Brook Street Band and director John Andrews are to be congratulated on making this recording at all. It is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but deserves to be heard as a representation of Thomas Arne’s music, and of the non-Handel musical goings-on in London. Congreve’s libretto had been used for a competition in 1700 between four composers, the idea being to encourage opera in English, with little apparent success. Arne’s 1740 version was a result of a new interest in Congreve rather than in English opera. It is a jovial work, telling the well-known story of the shepherd Paris’s task of selecting the most beautiful of the three goddesses, Venus, Pallas, and June.

All three goddesses try to influence Paris; Pallas and Juno in a rather threatening manner, Pallas contribution leading to some militaristic music from Arne and what could have been a final chorus, had Venus not used seduction to win the prize. The rousing final chorus is no doubt sung through gritted by two of the goddesses. Although mercifully short by opera standards, the masque has all the elements of grander operatic affairs and is well worth a listen.

If Paris was to judge this performance on the basis of the amount of vibrato used by the three sopranos, Venus, in the form of Mary Bevan, would win by a long chalk. Her two companion goddesses both have an alarming vibrato, affecting pitch, intonation and vocal stability. You may be happy with that, but do listen before buying. Mercury and Ed Lyon’s Paris are not immune from that criticism, and Mary Bevan also has some wobbly moments but they make up for it by some excellent ornamentation and stylish singing.

The Brook Street Band have long been immersed in the English 18th-century repertoire, and it shows in their playing and interpretations.