Seen and Heard Concert Review
Snape Proms (2) : Purcell, King Arthur Singers from the Britten–Pears Young Artist Programme, the Britten–Pears Baroque Orchestra, Michael Chance (narrator) Laurence Cummings (director) Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 10.08.2006 (BK)
From its modest beginnings as a few vocal master classes taught by Peter Pears back in 1972, the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme has expanded into a prominent feature at the Maltings and an important school for young professional musicians.
The programme (formerly known as the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies) offers training and performance opportunities to emerging young musicians amid the inspiring setting of Aldeburgh and Snape. As well as holding courses and master classes throughout the year the BPYAP also fields a chamber choir, an orchestra and a baroque orchestra, all of which feed in to the year-round programme of concerts and events at Aldeburgh, including the Festival and the Snape Proms.
This production was the result of an intensive masterclass course supported by the Leverhulme Trust in which young professionals worked under Michael Chance. All the singers in the production received Leverhulme Trust bursaries and the end result was a refreshing performance, as 'authentic' as could be (at least in terms of sound) and an altogether delightful evening of music-making.
As the recent ENO production of King Arthur demonstrated, this 'semi-opera' is a difficult work to stage and its original length of some four hours inevitably requires pruning for modern audiences. The solution here was to have Michael Chance narrate a summary of the complicated action to link the sung passages together. Roughly based on the familiar Arthurian legend, John Dryden's 1691 libretto focuses on the 'love triangle' between Arthur, the blind Cornish Princess Emmeline and the dastardly Saxon King Oswald. Part whimsical allegory (there's a lot of magic in it, some evil spirits, the customary idyllic shepherd and a nymph or three, some Greek deities and the 'Cold Genius') and part nationalistic celebration, a concert performance like this one allows Purcell's glorious music pride of place without irritating distractions. Except one perhaps; of which more later.
But what music this is. Apart from the familiar bits - the 'Frost' scene, 'Fairest Isle' and 'Your hay, it is mow'd', Purcell's score is crammed full of French-inspired dance tunes, stirring marches and fanfares and lyrical ensembles and solos. It's a treat to the ears throughout especially when done as well as it was here under Laurence Cummings' stylish musical direction from the harpsichord.
The Britten–Pears Baroque Orchestra played this music as if born to it, which in a sense it was after its formation in 1992. With period instruments that included two theorbos, a bass violin and recorders, the group produced faultless ensemble, rhythmic accuracy and a transparency of instrumental balance that allowed every note of even the softest voiced parts to be heard clearly and distinctly throughout the whole work. Set against the fifteen-strong chorus of singers, the sound provided an integrated whole which was entirely enthralling. If special mention needs making, then the theorbos led by guest tutor Paula Chateuneuf and the two trumpets were particularly notable, but these are only examples of the group's general artistry.
In similar fashion,
it would be almost unfair to highlight any of the singers,
many of whom combined functions as both chorus members
and soloists. Suffice it to say, that on this showing,
this multi-national group (which included a strong Canadian
contingent, as well as people from Australia, Holland,
Ireland and the UK) demonstrated beyond any doubt that
the future of baroque singing is in very safe hands indeed.
This was subtle but vigorous music-making of the highest
The richly varied Snape Proms series continues until August 30th. For more details see the web site.