Purcell’s King Arthur is a problematic work. It was originally written as a sort of praise poem for Charles II showing the inevitable ascent to glory of the Stuarts from earliest days. Unfortunately Charles died and his brother lost his job before the piece could be given. The staunchly Protestant court of William and Mary wasn’t much in favour of a celebration of crypto-Catholic Charles by openly Catholic Dryden and it wasn’t until Dryden and Purcell needed a new commercial project that it reemerged with various cuts, insertions and reworkings to get it past the censorship. No reliable record exists of what was actually performed in that first commercial run so for their new CD release Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort have used a mixture of considerable erudition plus impressive musical nous to reconstruct something that is plausibly like what audiences in the 1690s might have heard.
It’s a 2CD set of just the music; none of the dialogue is included so it is isn’t a romp like the excellent Harnoncourt DVD or a travesty like the Niquet one. Great care has been taken over performance practices and this is outlined in some detail in the excellent accompanying booklet. The key elements I think are the use of a lowish pitch (something below A=400) which allows the use of a high tenor in places that might otherwise require falsetto; reproduction period trumpets which have no finger holes, unlike the later baroque instruments often used; and “French” bowing technique for the strings.
The lower pitch makes it easier for the high voices to articulate the words and the diction is excellent. The full text is included in the booklet but there’s no need for it at all. Sometimes the diction seems almost too Aldeburgh perfect especially in relation to a character like Grimbald; a most unpleasant demon in the service of the Saxons. Tempi and rhythms are varied and interesting. I thought for example that “We have sacrificed” sounded really slow though perfectly OK while “I call you all, to Woden’s hall” was exceptionally bouncy. The lyrical bits; “Fairest isle” etc, are lovely and the lads have a go at Mummerzet in “Your hay it is mow’d” with mixed results. More Jacob Rees-Mogg than actual peasant. It’s all very enjoyable with some things that will likely surprise a bit.
The singers are a pretty decent representation of what the UK has to offer these days with sopranos Anna Dennis. Mhairi Lawson, Rowan Pierce and Carolyn Sampson; high tenors Jeremy Budd and Christopher Fitzgerald Lombard; tenors James Way and Tom Castle; and basses Roderick Williams and Ashley Riches. The instrumentalists are a great group of scholar performers.
The recording; made at St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, between the 14th and 18th January 2019 is first class. I want to add a special word about the booklet because it’s exemplary. There’s a synopsis and complete texts plus tons of really interesting research and scholarship. The typography is lovely and it includes a whole bunch of evocative black and white photographs from Dunstanburgh Castle to Botallack tin mine (*) via a village green cricket scene and North Sea fishermen. It’s quite lovely.
* The Botallack photo looks like it was taken from a point on the coast path maybe 200m west of the spot where Katja and I spotted a pair of badgers late one night.