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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Academy of Ancient Music: Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, Thomas Guthrie
The Barbican, 2 October 2018

For anybody who was not already familiar with the story of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance (directed by Thomas Guthrie) at The Barbican opened with something of a plot-spoiler. The first half was a 40-minute exploration of the funeral rites of the dead Dido, albeit a couple of hours or more before she was ‘laid in earth’. Actually, laid in earth she wasn’t, instead lying on a funeral catafalque over which Belinda, Aeneas and assorted mourners (the AAM chorus, who opened the show with some rhythmic drum bashing) acted out their reaction to her death as they remembered her. And when I write ‘she’ in fact it was a half-size puppet of the upper half of Dido who represented her throughout the evening. The full panoply of puppets came to the fore in the second half performance of Dido and Aeneas itself where the entire cast of soloists and chorus sported puppets – torsos for Dido and Aeneas, heads and gauze cloths for the rest. Continue reading

OAE: Semele

Handel: Semele
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christophe Rousset
Royal Festival Hall, 18 October 2017

Handel’s Semele is a curious work. Described at the time as a “musical drama . . . after the manner of an oratorio”, it is positioned rather awkwardly between opera and oratorio. It was first performed in concert format during the 1744 Lenten oratorio season, the decidedly secular story causing an inevitable shock to those expecting a piously biblical seasonal oratorio. Nowadays it is usually performed as a fully staged opera, but this dramatically performed concert performance gave us a chance to absorb the music, without interference from a director. Despite fairly obviously moralistic undertones, the story is about as far from the biblical oratorio as you can get. Continue reading

BBC Proms: Israel in Egypt

Handel: Israel in Egypt (original 1739 version)
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall. 1 August 2017

A combination of Handel, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and William Christie is bound to sell out the vast auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall, but the first performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, in 1739, was not so successful. Many stayed away because of the biblical context of the work, and those that came were not overly impressed. The reasons are complex, but are generally to do with Handel’s move from opera to the new musical form of oratorio. The slightly earlier oratorio Saul, written just before Israel and Egypt, was a great success, no doubt because the musical style included more elements of opera. Israel in Egypt was far more hard-core, not least in the use of choruses. The first part, nearly always omitted in present day performances, is a continuous sequence of 12 choruses. Part Two has 7 and Part Three 8, but these are broken up by a few arias, duets, and recitatives. Handel made many subsequent changes to the score, and it is usually now performed in the 1756 version, with its odd recitative start (which refers back to the non-existent Part One) and no Symphony. It was the inclusion of Part One, and what was supposed to be (but I think was not quite) the original 1739 version, that made this Proms performance so special. Continue reading