It is well known that there was only one composer working
in London in the 18th century. Pity any musician who had the misfortune
to be active at the time that Mr Handel was doing his thing. Handel’s
titanic genius notwithstanding, he was actually a representative of
his era, and it was an era packed with musical activity. London in the
Georgian era was the musical capital of Europe and it is undeniable
that there were periods when Handel was out of popular favour. Music
still went on and it was those obscure contemporaries who were filling
the concert halls. The trouble with most of them is that they sound
like Handel - but aren’t Handel. This underlines the point, of course,
that Handel was but a representative voice of his era. His great contemporaries
in London were the two senior native-born composers; William Boyce and
Dr Thomas Arne. This double disc of music by Arne includes a great variety
of his wonderfully skilful writing. Especially as a vocal melodist Arne
was highly revered and his settings of the English language are masterly.
The recording here of ‘The Soldier tir’d’ from Arne’s most famous stage
work - Artaxerxes - is a wonderfully un-modern performance which breaks
all the rules of period performance interpretations. But can Joan Sutherland
sing? Forget the stodgy playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra,
or that the harpsichord sounds like it’s strung with fencing wire. When
La Stupenda gets going up to her top C the result makes your
hair stand on end. The track is only 4’03" long, but it makes the
whole double disc worthwhile.
Other singers include Robert Tear, recorded in 1969.
Usually, this writer comes down heavily in favour of period instrument
performances and vocal styles, but like Sutherland, the sheer quality
of Tear’s voice makes one forgive any number of ‘unstylistic’ features.
His diction is superb; his phrasing is impeccable and he sounds like
he really understands what he is singing about, albeit in the
manner of the late 60s. In comparison, Emma Kirkby with the Academy
of Ancient Music in songs from Comus, Rosamond and The Tempest, sounds
rather too thin and virginal to be completely satisfying. The earliest
recording is the final track of disc 2, sung by Jennifer Vyvyan with
Ernest Lush at the piano. While this may also be interesting in its
own right, the piano accompaniment of an orchestral song of the 18th
century is just too far from the original to be viable. Given that both
the discs are well over 70 minutes long, it was an inclusion that would
have been better left out.
Of the orchestral works, the highlight must be the
eight overtures that make up most of disc 1. The Academy of Ancient
Music on period instruments play these works with a lightness and grace
that really brings out the character. Made in 1973, even these are nearly
historic recordings and the intonation and ensemble is certainly a lot
rougher than we expect from period bands of today. However, there is
an excitement in the performances that is often found in recordings
from the early days of the period instrument revival; a sense of rediscovery
and of saying something really new. The later highly polished performances
too often lack that missionary zeal. In comparison with these, the keyboard
concertos make only ‘interesting’ listening. The performances of George
Malcolm at the harpsichord, with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields,
and of Jean Guillou at the organ of an unidentified Lutheran Church
in Berlin, accompanied by the Berlin Brandenburg Orchestra, are enjoyable
inasmuch as they remind us of the way baroque music used to be performed.
There is much beauty (too much, in the case of some of the string playing,
where accompaniments become over important) and some fine musicianship,
but the ‘language’ of the instrumental sound is all wrong. As in some
of the orchestral continuo, George Malcolm’s harpsichord sounds like
Beecham’s famous description of two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.
Reconstructions of 18th century harpsichords were still a few years
away, and the 1960s versions were basically characterless. The organ
has the same sort of problems. It is not a bad sounding instrument and
it is very well played, but it is not an English 18th century sound
and this is important. Arne, like Handel, did not write for pedals or
reeds and had in mind an instrument that was basically a box of recorders
with a keyboard. Thus, aspects of articulation and ‘chiff’ (the way
the sound from an organ pipe begins) are very important.
It must be admitted that this double disc is enjoyable
to listen to. However, as with so many compilation discs made from the
back-catalogue, the choice of recordings is limited to what is available
in that catalogue, or, as here, becomes too much of a pot-pourri of
period- and non-period performances; of bits of this and bits of that.
If Decca had decided on a pair of single discs they could have avoided
some of the less pleasant juxtapositions and still had two discs of
interesting Arne. However, taken in the knowledge of what type of disc
this is, it is a worthwhile listen.
See also review by Jonathan