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
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
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.
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
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.
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