Henry Purcell’s King Arthur

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Published: 19th February, 2019

As Melbourne Recital Centre’s 2019 Signature Events, the two performances of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur by the Gabrieli Consort & Players were an eagerly anticipated highlight of Melbourne’s classical music calendar. At last, Paul McCreesh, founder and conductor of one of the world’s most renowned Baroque ensembles, was bringing its virtuosic members to perform a work of genius by the undisputed master of English Baroque music.

This version of King Arthur is very much Henry Purcell’s since it consists of only the musical component of his and poet John Dryden’s “semi-opera”. There is no complete version of King Arthur and McCreesh, along with bass violin player Christopher Suckling, have gone to great pains to form a coherent whole from many scattered parts. Drawing from other works by Purcell, some instrumental pieces have been added and those of dubious origin in the final Act have been substituted with more suitable material.

The basic plot concerns King Arthur’s fight against the invading Saxons led by Oswald. Both are rivals for the hand of Emmeline, the blind daughter of the Duke of Cornwall. Oswald is aided by the evil wizard Osmond and his earthly spirit Grimbald while Arthur has the help of Merlin and Philidel, a spirit of the air, who has defected to Arthur’s camp. Needless to say, the ending is happy with Arthur getting the (now sighted) girl. While the two spirits are singing roles, most of the storyline is advanced by spoken roles.

Following two buoyant French-flavoured dances and an Overture, the singers entered the stage unencumbered by scores. It was immediately apparent that this was to be a performance where they were free to immerse themselves in the drama, interacting with each other and the audience. And so it proved. In addition to three chorus members, six soloists with a formidable list of credits to their names conveyed the dramatic action in a semi-staged format. Ashley Riches opened with an address to Woden, Briton’s deity (no grail knights here), his rich, resonant bass-baritone leading other soloists and the chorus in a disturbingly vivid account of animal sacrifice. There was a certain tongue-in cheek air of self-congratulation among the gravitas – a sense of fun that continued throughout all five Acts. The quality of sound generated by three sopranos, four tenors, a baritone and a bass-baritone in “We have sacrificed” was remarkable – vibrant and beautifully integrated.

Act 2 saw a humorous rearranging of places as two groups vied to save or destroy the Britons. Mhairi Lawson’s Philidel was a lively creature, determined to stop Riches’ equally determined Grimbald. Audience members sitting in the front rows of the stalls were alternately urged to “Come, follow me”. The final trio “We brethren of air” was a perfect blend of fine voices. Further comedy was to be had as tenor James Gilchrist removed his jacket (all men wore suits), exposing his braces – rustic russet against his blue shirt – and sat on the edge of the stage to sing about the joys of the shepherd’s life and the pleasures of love. I don’t think there was one moment in the whole performance when Gilchrist was not fully emotionally engaged. You could almost see the summer fields as he lay back for a quiet snooze, only to be kicked and prodded back to reality by two pragmatic shepherdesses. Once again, Lawson’s voice made a delightful blend with Anna Dennis’s glorious soprano. Both had the knack of finding the sweet spot in the hall’s acoustic that lent extra resonance to their voices.

Apart from Venus’s song, “Fairest Isle”, which comes in the final Act and was sung with outstanding beauty of tone by Dennis to a delicate harpsichord accompaniment, the Act 3 masque, known as the Frost Scene, would have to be the most famous – and fascinating. Among the many versions of “The Cold Song” on YouTube there is even one by Sting. During the instrumental prelude, Riches became Cold Genius, settling himself down to sleep on his chair until he was prodded awake by Lawson’s Cupid, who eventually awoke the rest of the “frozen” singers by warming them with love. Unlike most of the solos, which were accompanied by the continuo instruments, the strings accompanied the solo for Cold Genius with short, stiff, repeated strokes. In some versions of this song the bow is drawn close to the bridge to produce an eerie, icy quality, but in this case cutting precision produced the chilling effect. Tempi vary wildly across the various interpretations, with some so fast the song is devoid of real impact and others so slow it becomes leaden and lifeless. While it is to some degree a matter of taste, for this listener just a shade slower might have given Riches space to find even greater expressive shading. The tempo seemed to be more convincing for the teeth chattering chorus of Cold People.

Anna Dennis and Mhairi Lawson were not required to follow the lead of some performances and appear topless as Two Sirens for Act 4. They made up for this by the most beguilingly languid singing you could hope to be seduced by. The two theorbos accompanying them added to the enchantment. Arthur might have resisted their enticing invitation to “Come bathe with us”, but the Act continued with a lengthy passacaglia promoting the happiness of lovers. When hearing the refrain “No joys are above/The pleasures of love” many listeners might have wondered whether music of this quality might challenge the assertion.

In addition to praise for the Fairest Isle with its fish, flocks and enriching British wool, Act 5 is notable for its rambunctious folksy drinking song. With a singer producing a tambourine to emphasise the jollity of finishing the harvest, cheating the parson of his “One in ten” tithe, the singers urged the audience to join them in the final refrain of “Old England … And heigh for the honour of old England” – which many did.

This was no stuffy academic essay in authenticity; historically informed, it was still essentially a joyous affair with stylish ornamentation that enlivened rather than weighed down. The fiendishly difficult Baroque trumpet was a singular pleasure in the hands of Jean-Francois Madeuf. As McCreesh told us in a pre-concert chat with Marshall McGuire, Madeuf is the only person in the world who plays an authentic Baroque trumpet. No sneaky short-cutting holes to allow fingers to find notes more easily; his instrument, with its softer mouth activated articulation, produces a more lyrical, liquid and gentler tone. There were surprisingly few imperfections as it was used to stirring effect at key points, including the beginning and end of Acts 1 and in the final Act, celebrating Britannia and St George. A thrilling trumpet obbligato accompanied Hugo Hymas’ spirited account of the final tenor song. Although the words of this and the following chorus might have sounded uncomfortably jingoistic (but how many of us have launched into Rule Britannia with gusto without worrying too much about political correctness?), it was impossible to resist being captivated by the triumphal music.

The performance ended as it had begun, with the band playing another beautifully phrased, graceful dance after the enthusiastic applause had subsided and the singers and conductor had left the stage. Smiling people exited the auditorium, uplifted by the vitality of accomplished singers, the superb playing of 17 exceptional instrumentalists and Purcell’s marvellous, expertly edited score. A more satisfying and enjoyable way of celebrating the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 10 years of great music would be hard to find.

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Heather Leviston attended the two performances of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur given by the Gabrieli Consort & Players in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall of the Melbourne Recital Centre on February 16 and 17.