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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
The Fairy Queen (1692): Highlights [65:51]
Act 4 Symphony (sections 1-2) [2:03]
Act 2 Come all ye songsters of the sky5 [2:07]
Act 1 Scene of the Drunken Poet7,3,1 [6:46]
Act 2 See, even Night herself is here1 [5:52]
One charming night4 [2:28] …Hush, no more8 [4:22]
Act 3 Symphony while the swans come forward [2:01]
Dialogue of Coridon and Mopsa7,4 [4:23]
If love’s a sweet passion1,8 [4:45]
Hornpipe [1:01]
Act 4 Now the night is chac’d away1 [1:57] …Let the fifes and the clarions4,6 [2:11]
See my many coloured fields5 [3:28]
Next, Winter comes slowly8 [2:28] …Hail! Great parent of us all [1:56]
Act 5 Yes, Xansi6 [2:00]
Hark! the echoing air1 [2:40] … Sure the dull god of marriage3,1,7 [2:21] …
See, see, I obey7 [3:09]  … Turn then thine eyes3,1 [1:30] … My torch, indeed7 [0:58] … They shall be as happy (trio) 3,1,7 [1:11] … Chaconne [2:43] … They shall be as happy (chorus) [1:17] 
Armonico Consort: 1Elin Manahan Thomas, 2Hilary Brennan, 3Anna Bolton (sopranos), 4William Towers (counter-tenor), 5Mark Wilde, 6Kevin Kyle (tenors), 7Thomas Guthrie, 8William Townend (basses), Orchestra of the Baroque/Christopher Monks
rec. Merton College, Oxford, April 2006. DDD
DEUX-ELLES DXL 1120 [65:51]

 

You won’t find it on the front cover, nor the jewel case spine, but in tiny letters on the back cover under the title it says ‘Highlights’. There is a case for a highlights disc, both in terms of finance and making unfamiliar music more approachable. But does this performance conducted by Christopher Monks work out in practice?

The Sinfonia written by Purcell to accompany the stage effect of the sun rising makes a good beginning. Arresting drums and trumpets opening and lively, suitably abrasive playing from the strings. I’m looking forward to the contrast of the luscious, languorous slow section when everything stops. The problem of highlights lies in their selection. This ‘symphony’ is Purcell’s longest orchestral piece in this work, magnificently laid out in six sections and here are just two. Sections 4 and 6 feature a gallop for trumpets and drums but section 5 is the heart of the piece, a regal procession for strings, the sun fully unveiled. What extravagance would it have been to record the whole. In The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra/Harry Christophers 1990 complete recording (Coro 16005) used for comparison throughout this review it takes 6:16. It would have been worth it. This is like having the William Tell overture finish with the storm.

My second disappointment is that Purcell’s continuity of the Masque of the Four Seasons is broken. Purcell’s next item, Now the night is chac’d away, doesn’t come till track 11. I track forward and this number goes with a splendid light swing. The following ‘Let the fifes and the clarions and shrill trumpets sound’ (tr. 12) has nicely varied ornamentation on repeat. But alas, its command is unheeded because out goes Purcell’s glorious Entry of Phoebus for trumpets and drums which is an elaboration of the beginning of that tune. This saves 35 seconds.    

Four Seasons are reduced to Two. That’s OK because Autumn and Winter are the musical highlights. Mark Wilde’s ornamentation in See my many coloured fields (tr. 13) is very agreeable, but also necessary as without it his voice lacks inflection and colour in comparison with Ian Partridge in the Christophers recording. Winter (tr. 14) is excellent. The opening chromatic descents are rapt and intimate on solo strings while William Townend presents a fine, clean focused voice and well judged climax. A name to look out for.

The chorus Hail! Great parent (tr. 15) which closes the masque is surprising in its impact, given the small forces here at their maximum, that’s eight singers and nine instrumentalists. The glowing but still intimate acoustic of Merton College Chapel, I presume - the notes aren’t exact – helps. Interestingly, in creating his performing edition Thomas Guthrie has returned to the contextually more grammatically correct 1692 libretto’s ‘Before thy shrine the seasons fall’ rather than the music manuscripts’ ‘Before your shrine’, but hasn’t also kept ‘Thou who givest all beings birth’ rather than ‘Nature birth’.

In terms of what you’re most likely to remember, the other undoubted highlights are the two broad comedy scenes. The Scene of the Drunken Poet (tr. 3) begins superbly with cheeky whistling and an out-of-tune country dance band. Thomas Guthrie characterises the Poet’s stutter well. This is written into the music which lampoons the poet Thomas D’Urfey. But when he sings ‘I’m drunk as I live, boys’ he sounds as sober as a judge. Curiously in the pause before this (3:17) is a whisper, ‘Come on’, an unedited prompt perhaps? At the end of the scene there’s some snorting and yawning followed by another whisper, ‘Rubbish’ (6:42). Is this the recording producer? Richard Suart in the Christophers’ recording is more suitably sozzled.

Here the Dialogue of Coridon and Mopsa (tr. 8) finds Guthrie a pleasingly light-toned yet rather innocent Coridon and William Towers a carefully prim Mopsa. The extra dimension – clear to all except Coridon - of  Mopsa being a drag queen is apparent in this quest for nooky, with vocal indications in the final refrain that hanky-panky is already starting. For Christophers Michael George makes a more rounded yokel Coridon and Michael Chance a more seductively coy Mopsa.

The highlight for me would be Titania’s nightcap. It is as evocative night music as any. Ushered in by Night (tr. 4), Elin Manahan Thomas purely negotiates the high tessitura with an intentness that takes away a little of the sense of benediction. The cutting of Mystery’s song is acceptable. William Towers might relax a little more in Secrecy’s song (tr. 5) where the use of violins instead of recorders as specified for the obbligato accompaniment is a disadvantage; at least it is in comparison with the Christophers’ recording, where Michael Chance is also more sensual.

Well realized by Monks are the pauses in Sleep’s contribution (tr. 6), with William Townend again in fine, soft-focused voice, albeit without quite the sotto voce stillness of Michael George for Christophers. Here Monks, uniquely in recordings, chooses to have the Sleep chorus unaccompanied. At first this is enchanting but from 2:46 intonation is somewhat insecure.

Monks finds a different way of presenting If Love’s a sweet passion (tr. 9). Normally this is a soprano song followed by chorus, but here it’s a duet for soprano and bass, with each couplet immediately repeated by chorus. The bass part is quite explicit so this practice is quite feasible and makes an enjoyable contrast. The immediate alternation of soloist and chorus is made by some recordings for Belinda’s air, Thanks to these lonesome vales from Dido and Aeneas. The contrast is weakened a little in this case by the clear and necessary presence of the soloists also in the chorus.

In the heading I’ve indicated continuous sequences of music by three dots. From track 17, a spirited Hark the echoing air with some neat coloratura from Elin Manahan Thomas, the music is presented complete till the end. This begins with the summoning of Hymen, the God of Marriage with a duet and chorus (tr. 18), the latter becoming rather shrill and not wholly secure in intonation. Thomas Guthrie’s Hymen (tr. 19) is attractively light-toned, eager if at first unable to oblige. To celebrate the successful outcome the Chaconne (tr. 23) goes with a real swing and the instrumentalists turn on the style with intelligent and inventive ornamentation. It’s also good to hear an improvised timpani part so that everyone is brought together in the closing chorus.

Had I experienced this performance as a live event I would have felt refreshed and invigorated by its realization of the magic of Purcell’s music. Its foundation was a number of complete staged performances in 2005 and 2006, featuring puppets, comedy and dance circus. If you’ve been to a performance it makes a fair souvenir, but as a recording it’s there to be scrutinized and compared with others. These are young voices who don’t yet always project with the feeling and nuance of Christophers’ soloists and are therefore less satisfying, despite their raw freshness. The instrumentalists, on the other hand, can hold their own against any and the recording does demonstrate it’s possible to perform the work strikingly even with very small forces.

Unfortunately the present format turns out to be third best. The highlights might have been better integrated. The audio recording shows up weaknesses in comparison with the competition where a DVD would have been more revealing of the unique features and strengths of the Armonico Consort’s skills and ethos. This is something to bear in mind when they turn to King Arthur next year.

Michael Greenhalgh

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