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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Thomas Augustine ARNE

Eight Overtures, Harpsichord Concerto No 5, Organ Concertos Nos 4-6
and other selections
CD 1
Overtures Nos 1-8

(The Academy of Ancient Music - Christopher Hogwood)
Bacchus and Ariadne
9 Recit: The faithless Theseus
10 Aria: Ah, Theseus, Theseus stay!
11 Recit: The jolly god who rules
12 Aria: Cease, lovely nymph, to weep
13 Recit: With soft reluctance
14 Aria: Learn whence ye fond maidens
Fair Caelia Love Pretended
15 Recit: Fair Caelia love pretended
16 Aria: To all the sex deceitfull
17 Recit: But Caelia now repenting
18 Aria: How engaging, how endearing
(Robert Tear - tenor- The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields - Neville Marriner)
CD 2

Artaxerxes
1 The soldier tir’d
(Joan Sutherland - Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden)
2 Harpsichord Concerto No 5
(George Malcolm - harpsichord; Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields - Marriner)
3-11 Organ Concertos Nos 4-6
(Jean Guillou - organ; Berlin Brandenburg Orchestra - René Klopfenstein)
Songs
12 Rise, Glory, rise (from Rosamond)
13 By the rushy-fringed bank (from Comus)
Brightest lady (from Comus)
14 Where the bee sucks there lurk I (from The Tempest)
(Emma Kirkby - The Academy of Ancient Music - Christopher Hogwood)
15 O ravishing delight (from The Judgement of Paris)
(Jennifer Vyvyan - soprano; Ernest Lush - piano)
Various recordings made in 1953, 1960, 1967, 1969, 1973, 1991
DECCA - BRITISH MUSIC COLLECTION 470 372-2 [CD1 72’08"+CD2 76’03"] Budget price


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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.

Peter Wells

See also review by Jonathan Woolf


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