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Thomas ARNE (1710-1778)
The Judgement of Paris - masque to words by William Congreve (1742)
Venus - Mary Bevan (soprano)
Pallas - Susanna Fairbairn (soprano)
Juno – Gillian Ramm (soprano)
Paris – Ed Lyon (tenor)
Mercury – Anthony Gregory (tenor)
(as part of chorus) – Andrew Mahon (bass)
Brook Street Band/ John Andrews
rec. 2018 at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Full text included
Reviewed in stereo and multi-channel formats

There is nothing profound or life changing about Thomas Arne’s masque The Judgement of Paris, however, listening to this crisply performed, vividly recorded account is a delightful way to bring some Arcadian bliss to an otherwise gloomy Sunday morning. In a characteristically enlightening booklet essay, the fount of English music knowledge that is Lewis Foreman succinctly traces the history of the masque form, from Ben Jonson, via James Shirley (whose entertainment The Triumph of Beauty was a forerunner of the present work) to William Congreve who apparently poduced the text of The Judgement of Paris for use in a composition competition. One of the entrants for this 1701 ‘Masque of the Day’ was the setting by John Eccles, which was recorded by Chandos in 2009 (review); in the event his contemporary John Weldon took the spoils. Thomas Arne’s setting dates from 1742, some time after Congreve’s death. It was first given at Drury Lane in the same year.

The somewhat twee plot concerns a kind of Arcadian beauty pageant for divinities. The messenger Mercury provides the shepherd Paris with a golden apple which he is told to present to his choice from three Goddesses, Juno, Pallas or Venus, who duly descend onto the stage. After some initial bickering between the three candidates, they each present their case in turn (this is obviously set long before the era of Eric Morley and the Mecca Organisation, as none of them mention anything about working with animals or children, nor do any of them reveal any earnest desires for world peace, especially not Pallas). Paris ultimately makes a predictable choice and after the presentation of the apple, a couple of rousing choruses round off the whole affair.

Arne’s tripartite overture is delicious and features vivacious playing from the Brook Street Band; it is projected with spectacular clarity and no little warmth in Dutton’s expert recording. The oboes emerge with startling presence, while leader Rachel Harris offers some spirited solo violin in the concluding gigue. Decent though the SACD sound is, I actually preferred the greater intimacy afforded by the two-speaker format. In the opening recitatives Anthony Gregory makes an assertive, expressive Mercury, while his fellow tenor Ed Lyon (clearly a rising star) is hardly a shrinking violet as Paris. Both have precise, immaculate diction, and deliver Congreve’s tricky words with considerable fluency. As the goddesses appear, Lyon shines in the rapturous accompanied recitative O Ravishing Delight. In response Gregory makes light work of the delightful aria Fear not, mortal. Their voices intertwine to pleasant effect in the brief duet Happy I of human race.
As for the goddesses, all three sopranos are in fine fettle. After a lengthy and an amusingly competitive trio (Hither turn thee, gentle swain) in which their subtly contrasted voices, superbly balanced with the band and its hazily ethereal flutes seem to try and outdo each other, each protagonist sings an extended aria in which they make their case. First up is Gillian Ramm’s neatly characterised Juno, aptly haughty in Let Ambition fire thy mind. Even more powerful and strident is Susanna Fairbairn’s Pallas in The glorious voice of war, a rather Handelian aria which celebrates martial success. There’s some scene stealing here from the Brook Street Band’s star trumpeter Simon Desbruslais and timpanist Keith Price, while Dutton’s multi-channel sound approaches the truly spectacular at this point. But taking full advantage of going on last is Mary Bevan’s Venus, whose aria Nature fram’d thee sure for loving offers a perfect vehicle for Bevan’s radiant, alluring tone. For me, this is the high point of the work and of this disc. Needless to say, ‘tis she who takes home the coveted Pomme d’Or.
These five voices, with the addition of bass Andrew Mahon combine majestically in Arne’s all too brief choruses. The whole is directed with fluency and conviction by the Handel expert and English music specialist John Andrews, who’s turning out to be something of a regular for Dutton Epoch. While the period which spawned Arne’s version of The Judgement of Paris is often seen as a rather fallow one for English music, there is enough in this engaging score to make one regret the loss of much of his considerable output for stage. Dutton’s exceptional recording and the spirited performances here certainly make as fine a case as possible for this neglected masque.

Richard Hanlon

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