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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
King Arthur - opera in 5 Acts (1691) [93:15]
Gerald Finley (baritone) – Grimbald/Pan; Jamie MacDougall (tenor) – Shepherd; Julia Gooding (soprano) – Shepherdess/Siren/Nereid/Honour; Linda Perillo (soprano) – Philidel/Shepherdess/Siren; Nancy Argenta (soprano) – Cupid/Venus; Brian Bannatyne-Scott (bass) – Genius/Aeolus; Mark Tucker (tenor); Nigel Short (counter-tenor); Angus Davidson (counter-tenor); Jeremy Birchall (bass); Stephen Alder (bass); Caroline Ashton (soprano); Rachel Bevan (soprano); Carol Hall (soprano); Simon Davies (tenor) – Man; James Oxley (tenor) – Man; Simon Birchall (bass) – Man
The English Consort Choir
The English Consort/Trevor Pinnock
rec. June 1991, Libretto available at:
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 93928 [54:23 + 38:52] 
Experience Classicsonline

Although I have described “King Arthur” above as an Opera in 5 Acts, it is really a play by John Dryden which required elaborate scenic effects and had occasional sections with music by Purcell. Dryden described it as “A dramatick opera” but that should not be understood in a modern sense. Performing the music on its own gives little idea of any drama that there is in the original. The musical sections consist indeed of a series of disconnected scenes for characters who are for the most part peripheral to the action of the play. Many modern stage performances have tended to alter or even abandon much of Dryden’s text, thus giving little idea of the intended effect of the original. A fascinating article by Professor Curtis Price with these discs explains the complex history of the play which was written first to celebrate the silver jubilee of King Charles II and later revised to express a very different message after the Glorious Revolution.

The action derives from episodes in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of England”. Despite Dryden’s complaint that he had been “oblig’d to cramp his Verses to make them rugged to the Reader, that they may be harmonious to the Hearer” it can seem to listeners today that it is a pity that he did not go even further by allowing Purcell to write music for some of the more inherently dramatic scenes. In concert performance it is common to interpose a brief spoken narrative between the various sections. The notes with these discs supply that function, and the libretto is available on line. Although I find this an inherently extremely inconvenient device it is certainly better than not having it available at all. 

As you might expect from a cast largely drawn from singers with much experience in singing music of this period, and with the English Consort’s choir and orchestra, the performance is idiomatic and often extremely beautiful. Only rarely, however, could it be described as dramatic. The long first scene, for instance, depicts a heathen sacrifice by the Saxons before battle. In form, as Prof. Price remarks, it resembles a verse anthem. Unfortunately in this performance it also sounds like one, with the Saxons sounding like a particularly genteel Anglican cathedral choir. Without wanting anything approaching coarseness it is possible to inject greater urgency and sense of drama into this scene, which goes for very little. It ends with an exhortation to “quaff the juice that makes the Britons bold”. There can be little doubt here that the Priestess can be referring to nothing stronger than tea. 

I was therefore disappointed in the overall impact of this recording. However I must emphasize that there are moments, indeed much more than moments, of considerable musical beauty and character. The Chaconne at the start, sometimes included in other performances at the very end as The Grand Dance, is played with both vigour and grace, as is the succeeding Overture. “Fairest Isle” is sung slowly but with mesmerizing control and beauty of tone and phrasing by Nancy Argenta, and the two daughters of the stream manage to make their invitation to Arthur to join their naked swimming extremely and appropriately seductive. Nonetheless the lack of much in the way of dramatic feeling remains a problem. Oddly all of the otherwise sober approach is set aside for “Your hay it is mown” which is sung with rustic accents and cries of “ouh, ah” and so on. Perhaps by the time this was recorded something stronger had been substituted for the tea.

However, despite all my negative comments, this remains a very well recorded and never less than efficiently and idiomatically performed version of a work that deserves to be in every collection. It is only because it is one of Purcell’s works which seems to have the most potential for effective dramatic performance that I complain at anything less than that. If you do not have a recording of it in your collection this would fill that gap inexpensively, but I very much hope that a version will appear during this anniversary year which does so much better. 

John Sheppard


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