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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) King Arthur (1691)
Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce, Carolyn Sampson (sopranos), Jeremy Budd (high tenor), James Way (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
rec. 2019, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
Texts included SIGNUM CLASSICSSIGCD589 [2 CDs: 97:38]
This recording has been gestating for a long time. Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli forces have been performing King Arthur as an ongoing project for 25 years and, given there is no single score of the work, it has required multiple solutions to the problem of stitching together a convincing theatrical and musicological entity. Multiple solutions, true, but they have been arrived at over time and through an accretion of practical experience, rather than having been suddenly been revealed as a palimpsest.
To buttress the recording there is a fine array of textual material that explains the decisions made in this new performing edition made by Christopher Suckling and McCreesh. These include moving certain music, such as the duet ‘You say, ‘tis love’ from its accustomed Act V place to a new spot at the end of Act IV. Music from Dioclesian now usurps the concluding praise song, as this doesn’t exist in contemporary source material and is thus thought not to be authentically part of the score. I have to say that I find the omission of two trumpet tunes that are known to be original is odd, though at least they are very brief. I suspect what is required in this edition is a sense of seamless theatricality, a logical and flowing momentum. What is not in doubt is the use of the pitch A=392Hz or the use of all-gut strings, French bow holds and the use of non-bowed string accompaniment in accompanying figures. This all goes towards a youthful, light, springy approach, quite the opposite of a pomposo approach.
In fact, the opening music one hears - the first music, second music and overture - comes from Amphitryon before we arrive at the opening verse and chorus (‘Woden, first to thee’) where Roderick Williams brings an accomplished operatic sensibility to his singing. High tenor Jeremy Budd is a technically accomplished performer and brings a theatrical conviction to his performance, too. Carolyn Sampson lives up to her reputation in this repertoire with supreme musicality, dovetailing with the chorus in ‘Hither this way’ – finely pointed winds here as well. My own quibble and it’s a personal one which won’t be shared by all, or perhaps many, is that the Cold Genius scene is taken at a very fast tempo. Yes, the icy strings bite and yes, it’s properly theatre-minted and there’s no faulting bass-baritone Ashley Riches. But its cumulative thaw is rendered somewhat trivial at McCreesh’s tempo.
What can’t go unnoticed is the subtlety of the band’s colours, such as the sonic distribution and deft dynamic variation in the trumpets in the Act I ‘Come if you dare’. The strings’ commas in ‘How blest are shepherds’ support the light, graceful tenor of James Way – his decorations are subtly etched, not splashed; the tempo is forward moving but has time to breathe, a pastoral song that has varied accompaniment throughout its length. The Act IV opening Aire comes from Bonduca and the ensuing Passacaglia is finely executed. Sampson and Williams are superb in ‘You say, ‘tis love’, full of clarity and warmth as they trace love’s disparate routes and expressive states. Then there’s the rustic-yokelry of ‘Your hay it is mowed’ where the chorus dig out their country accents and let down their hair. It’s another look at Englishness which, incidentally, is reflected in the accompanying documentation’s black and white photographs (pub, cricket, sheep, Brighton pier, McCreesh, fish, Morris Dancers, Stonehenge and Druids, and the like).
I feared for ‘Fairest Isle’ but I shouldn’t. It’s taken at a good tempo and has discreet decoration – which was my main fear – and is well accompanied by Jan Waterfield’s harpsichord. ‘Sound Heroes’ is suitably grandly done, theorbo thrumming, and makes for a fine lead to the final Grand Dance Chaconne.
It ends a performance that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers to the many problems inherent in King Arthur but has the courage to present an accumulation of its own solutions to theatrical and musicological problems. This Suckling-McCreesh edition will, I am sure, not be the last word on the subject; it’s their - possibly transitional - word on the subject, but the field is clearly still open for other approaches as regards interpolations, relocations and excisions. What they and their performers have achieved, however, is a loving, beautifully balanced and subtle performance and – on a good day – I might even forgive them the Cold Genius scene.