King Arthur, or the British Worthy - Semi-opera in five Acts [92:21]
Venus/Shepherdess/Nymph – Véronique Gens (soprano); Philidel/Honour/Siren – Claron McFaddon (soprano); She/Shepherdess/Siren – Sandrine Piau (soprano); Cupid/Nereid – Susannah Walters (soprano); Grimbald/He/Nymph – Jonathan Best (bass); Cold Genius/Aeolus/Comus – Petteri Salomaa (bass); Pan – Francis Bazola (bass); Shepherd – Ian Paton (tenor); Mark Padmore (tenor)
Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
rec. Théàtre du Chàtelet, Paris, February 1995
ERATO 2564 67743-4 [50:43 + 41:38]

When I reviewed the recent Brilliant Classics reissue of the recording of King Arthur directed by Trevor Pinnock I found myself enjoying the work much less than I had expected. It was certainly very expertly performed and had many virtues - including an excellent booklet - but somehow lacked any sense that the music was part of a drama. Admittedly the play by John Dryden to which it is an essential addition is not one of his better works, and as usual in English semi-operas of the period the music needs the framework of the play to make any kind of dramatic sense as a whole. Nonetheless it is full of varied, characterful, scenes that can make a vivid impression given a responsive listener and a performance that links expertise in the style of the period with real dramatic thrust. The earlier set had the first of these but not the second. I am therefore delighted that the present version has both qualities in abundance.

This may be because it was recorded after a series of performances in Paris directed by Graham Vick. Some vestiges of this remain in strange but effective vocal and other effects, presumably related more to the dramatic action than to the music. They are however not distracting but help to emphasise that this is not a mere cantata. Given the very short running time of the discs it would have been even better to have had at least a shortened version of Dryden’s much maligned drama, but I make no complaint at the quality of what we do have here. Both orchestra and singers perform with elegance and point, above all with the great rhythmic verve essential in Purcell. The music always seems to be going somewhere positive. Inevitably in performance with so many performers whose first language is not English there are times when it is essential to view the libretto (available on line) or score to know what is being sung, but this did not bother me as much as I had expected. There is indeed a special, albeit perverse, pleasure in hearing the xenophobic sentiments of the text being declaimed with a French accent. Apart from this point all of the soloists are admirable, fitting in well with the overall performance style.

I first got to know King Arthur in the pioneering set directed by Anthony Lewis. That still has many virtues and I enjoy it still but more recent Purcell performances have the benefit of performers more used to the appropriate performance style for the period, and the present performance is one of the best I have heard. Admittedly the discs play for only about an hour and a half but the quality of the performance makes this of little importance in this case. The booklet gives a very full list of performers and an adequate synopsis.

John Sheppard

One of the best I have heard.