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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
King Arthur (1691)
Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson (sopranos)
Jeremy Budd, James Way (tenors)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Ashley Riches (bass)
Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. 2019, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD589 [53:25 + 44:13]

No one likes to be predictable but, at the risk of repeating myself, this is yet another Gabrieli release that it is my pleasure to praise to the skies.

In many ways this sees McCreesh back on territory with which he has been associated for decades. Rather than blockbusting, scale-bursting performances of Berlioz or Mendelssohn, this is a historically informed reconstruction of Purcell’s great semi-opera, so forces are small and textures are transparent; but the reconstruction is done with such sensitivity and sympathy that it is elevated into the realm of the extraordinary.

King Arthur has a famously tortured history which makes an urtext pretty much impossible. It was conceived as part of a paean to the Stuart monarchy, but came to be composed only after the Glorious Revolution once James II had been deposed by William and Mary. So while it’s partly innocent patriotic propaganda, Purcell was compelled to tone down its loyalist message, which led to several changes of mind in its production and performance history.

It will surprise no one to learn that McCreesh explains all of this in his booklet note. What is noteworthy, however, is the accessible detail with which he and his colleagues do so. Not only do we get a summary of the work’s history, but we also get an explanation of the thought processes behind the set’s approach to the string playing, the bass lines, the trumpets and the singing. It’s remarkably generous, and it’s all encased within a hard-back book that fans of this Winged Lion series have come to know and love.

The orchestral picture is delightful. The string playing is vibratoless but warm, with transparent textures and attractive openness. The winds are beautiful during Aeolus’ scene, and the guitar and theorbo give a real kick of energy to the continuo playing. Dances are a key part of the work’s structure, and the many instrumental movements move with impeccable bounce and sensitivity, culminating in a rousing final chaconne.

The singing is really marvellous, too. It’s informed by historical practice, and performed by some of its finest practitioners; but there is never a hint of the academic about it: this is music performed out of pleasure, with the aim of giving pleasure to the listener. James Way, for example, is an alluring delight in How blest are Shepherds, surely one of Purcell’s most winning arias, and Roderick Williams sings his several roles with bluff assertiveness, his warm baritone coming through at every point. Jeremy Budd adds great colour at the top, and Ashley Riches underpins the soloists with strength (and a good dose of humour as the Cold Genius), while the sopranos at the top sing with pellucid beauty, particularly Rowan Pierce and Anna Dennis, who makes a rather lovely siren at the beginning of Act 4. Carolyn Sampson is every bit as hot in the siren stakes, and she sings a beautiful Fairest Isle. Mhairi Lawson, as a sea nymph, won’t be outdone by either of them.

There is also a lovely sense of the collective to the enterprise, too, such as the sense of mischievous playfulness to Hither this way, the chorus of Philidel’s spirits in Act 2, and the other choruses have a pleasing fullness to them, not least the rustics in the fifth act, all of whom sound as though they are having a whale of a time.

The booklet contains the full text, of course, but, in a lovely touch, it also includes a beautiful selection of photographs of English scenes that range from Morris Dancers and Brighton pier to the Northumbrian coast and the summer solstice at Stonehenge. English rather than British scenes, I note; something which isn’t entirely in keeping with the opera’s rhetoric about “Britain” (not “England”) and the girding of this isle. It would have been nice to have had some pictorial input from Scotland and Wales; but if this is all I can think of to complain about then that should tell you enough about how good this set is. It is a presentation of the highest quality, which is also what I said about their last release. Like I said, nobody likes to be predictable, but...

Simon Thompson

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