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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
King Arthur Suite (1691) [13:26]
Dido and Aeneas Suite (1689) [9:03]
Dioclesian: Dance of the Furies (1690) [4:52]
The Fairy Queen Suite (1692) [7:26]
Abdelazar Suite (1695) [5:34]
Thomas ARNE (1710-1778)
Organ Concerto No. 2 in G major [13:09]*
John STANLEY (1713-1786)
Organ Concerto No. 4 in C minor, Op. 10 [10:39]*
Thomas CHILCOT (c. 1709-1766)
Harpsichord Concerto No. 3, Op. 2 [12:20] #
The City of London Chamber Orchestra/Thomas McIntosh (*organ conductor, #harpsichord conductor)
rec. 1980. DDD
VOX ALLEGRETTO ACD 8165 [77:22]
 

 


Purcell gets star billing on this CD. We get sequences of instrumental excerpts from five of his theatre works called suites. It’s a nuisance throughout this CD that individual movements aren’t separately tracked. First up, King Arthur, is a semi-opera, a play which also has musical scenes and incidental music. The Suite here begins with its Overture, slow and solemnly played but quite a bright string sound with that touch of fluorescence characteristic of early digital recording. If this is Arthur’s troops getting ready, Thomas McIntosh has them proceeding in dogged quavers. The fast section relieves the tension somewhat and the part writing is clear but the approach is still a touch deliberate. Next, also from the music before curtain up, comes a tender Air (tr. 1 3:10) which you might fancy as depicting Emmeline, Arthur’s betrothed. Here McIntosh is stately, but with nicely shaped phrasing. Oboes are added to the string band, doubling first and second violins and replacing them for the repeats. This editorial variation in scoring is also used for the following Hornpipe, the Third Act Tune (4:59) and the authentic instrumental version of the Act 5 song Fairest isle (5:52), by which time it has become something of a mannerism. Nevertheless the song tune is given a pleasing breadth. And we’re back to oboe-free territory for a rather firmly articulated Air, the Fourth Act Tune (8:00) and the Chaconne (8:50) which was probably the ‘Grand Dance’ at the very end. In this latter’s succeeding quaver passages McIntosh sometimes recalls his somewhat stiff upper lip Overture but he also evokes a sunny and assured mood overall, properly quietening and growing paler from 11:36 when F major turns to F minor for a spell.

The only other CD currently available featuring suites from Purcell’s semi-operas is Neville Marriner in a 1994 recording with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields (Capriccio 10 567). The items aren’t identical but where they match Marriner has as much variation in scoring and more style. His Chaconne is brighter and airier and you never forget it’s a dance. His Overture has much more lively projection and momentum, an equivalent timing of 1:48 against McIntosh’s 3:08, though McIntosh’s performance thereby has something of the sense of foreboding of the play’s opening. A case can also be made for McIntosh’s more plaintive manner in the following Air and more savoured approach to Fairest isle, which Marriner makes into a light dance.

Next comes a Suite from Purcell’s only opera, Dido and Aeneas, like you’ve never heard it before. In the Overture’s slow introduction the chromatic harmonies are expressively savoured but in the quick section, suddenly at tr. 2 1:20, oboes and trumpets flash forth out of the string texture and such crude spasms become the mannerism for this suite. They invade the slow ceremonial following Triumphing Dance (2:35), jolly Act 3 Prelude (6:08) and Sailors’ Dance (7:15), heard twice with an inelegant filling of the third section only of the Witches’ Dance (8:02). We’re spared the trumpets in the Prelude for the Witches (4:20) which follows the Triumphing Dance but oboes still prettify what should be a sinister texture. Oboes are OK in the Act 2 Scene 2 ritornello (6:44) which follows, out of sequence, and Act 3 Prelude as it’s given fair bounce and the strings are allowed the repeats to themselves.

The semi opera Dioclesian is represented by the Dance of the Furies from the end of Act 2. There’s ‘Soft music before the Dance’ to lull you off guard before the lashing swathes of demisemiquavers, clearly articulated but not really scary at the slowish tempo chosen. McIntosh takes 4:52, Marriner just 2:52 with more suitably bristling effect, though McIntosh creates more sense of atmosphere in the ‘Soft music’.

From the semi opera The Fairy Queen McIntosh gives us the Prelude before curtain up with oboes doubling the violins for the first statements of both sections, then something of an echo effect with quieter repeats without oboes. It’s on the slow side. Marriner is more vivacious here yet McIntosh has more sense of abundance. McIntosh is in his element in the stately ‘Symphony while the swans come forward’ from Act 3 (tr. 4 2:10), oboes present again. Next, also in a sturdy version, is the Act 2 Prelude (4:30), the novelty here being a repeat with trumpets doubling the violins except for some dumbing down for 3 bars near the end. Trumpets also double the violins in the Act 5 Entry Dance (5:51) for the repeats of the first and third sections. Marriner uses only strings here but contrasts between full and solo.

The final Purcell item is four of the nine instrumental pieces of incidental music provided for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazar. The Rondeau, familiar as the theme on which Britten worked his Variations in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, is firmly projected by McIntosh with neat dynamic shading. The Minuet (tr. 5 1:41) is sunny and dancing with oboes doubling violins again and on their own as a contrast for the repeats of both sections. This editorial scoring is also applied in the Hornpipe (4:36) but not before the variation of an Air (2:55) lightly done by strings alone.

I compared The Parley of Instruments/Peter Holman (Helios CDH 55010) who recorded all nine items in 1986. Here are the comparative timings:
 

Timings   

Rondeau

Minuet   

Air

Hornpipe     

Total

McIntosh

1:41

1:14 

1:41

0:58

5:34

Holman

1:22

0:44

1:11

0:43

4:00

Holman uses period instruments and prominent harpsichord continuo. With his modern instruments McIntosh dispenses with continuo but creates more variation through contrasts of dynamic. His broader approach is to more formal effect in the Rondeau: Holman’s goes with more of a swing. McIntosh’s Minuet is more relaxed because of the reduced scoring for the repeats, but Holman offers a simpler and more gracious lilt. His Air is faster and defter, yet McIntosh’s also is appreciably light on its toes and McIntosh’s Hornpipe is more consciously and attractively shaped.

The focus of this CD now shifts to 18th century English keyboard concertos. First up is Thomas Arne’s second organ concerto published in 1793. Here’s a confident and rumbustious sort of Allegro from McIntosh with an imposing organ, shades of Wurlitzer, recorded quite forward. McIntosh’s tempi for Arne are fast. This gives the strings a glassy edge. Only the outer movements are accompanied by orchestra. The first solo movement, ‘Slow’ (tr. 6 5:22) isn’t that slow and the following Moderato (6:26), also quite pacy, becomes more dramatic than reflective, though this might be to its advantage. The Allegro (7:30) after this is consistent in manner with the opening movement while the finale, a Giga: Allegro con spirito (9:40) is a jubilant race, a heady experience, but a rather fatiguing one in the glaring recorded sound.

Second comes John Stanley’s fourth concerto from his opus 10 set published in 1775. McIntosh’s opening Vivace movement is big boned and rather grim. The following Andante affetuoso, in the benign Handel manner, is here presented in rather grand, portly fashion. The Presto finale has more bite and dazzle. I compared the recording published in 1979 by Gerald Gifford at the organ of Hexham Abbey directing the Northern Sinfonia (CRD 3365). Here are the comparative timings:


Timings   

   I   

II

III     

Total

McIntosh

4:48

3:40  

2:11

10:39

Gifford

4:24 

4:38  

2:43

11:45

Gifford’s organ has a cleaner, more incisive sound, more in scale with the chamber orchestra backing, the overall effect neater, like that of 18th century architecture. His slow movement is warmer, more lyrical, gently spaced and affectionate. His finale doesn’t have McIntosh’s bite but is breezily effected with clarity and sparkle.

Finally on this CD McIntosh turns to the harpsichord for Thomas Chilcot’s third concerto of his opus 2 set published in 1775. This begins with an agreeable Allegro, all cheer and light with flutes dancing around the strings. The harpsichord is recorded forward and therefore comes with some action noise but at least its tone is intimate. The following Andante (tr. 8 5:37) introduces a more pensive mood but there’s still an assured sweep overall to the proceedings, possibly overmuch so. No matter, the Giga: Molto allegro says look, all is well and let the celebrations be unabated. Chilcot, organist of Bath Abbey all his working life, ought to be better known on this showing.

To sum up, this is an unusual and interesting programme but the performances fall into the ‘variable, sometimes good’ category and sometimes rather oddball too. The Arkiv CD under review doesn’t have booklet notes but I gather all future releases will and existing releases are gradually being upgraded.

Michael Greenhalgh

 

 


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