The curious thing about this performance of King Arthur is that the title character is nowhere to be seen – or heard. First performed in 1691, with music by Henry Purcell and text by John Dryden (surely the best double-act in London at the time), this semi-opera is part spoken theatre, in which principal characters such as Arthur drive the narrative, part incidental music and songs. England’s Gabrieli Consort and Players are only concerned with the latter, resulting in a series of disjointed musical moments in which minor characters, from fairies to shepherds, sing of gods, love and war.
Gabrieli Consort and Players
How beautiful those musical moments are, however, especially in the hands of Gabrieli founder and artistic director Paul McCreesh, who conducted from memory. He knows the work intimately because, together with one of the ensemble’s bass-violin players, Christopher Suckling, McCreesh has assembled a performing edition of King Arthur from various sources – none of them complete or in Purcell’s hand.
All 17 musicians played period or reproduction instruments, including two bass violins, short-necked and bowed upright, and a hole-less trumpet – a challenging instrument masterfully, if all too rarely, wielded by Jean-François Madeuf. He was most notable during a delicious instrumental vignette also featuring oboe, theorbo, baroque guitar and violin (played by assured concertmaster Catherine Martin).
All together, the ensemble were the epitome of English Baroque’s measured formality, but with an ease that comes from utter confidence in the material and Purcell’s occasional playfulness. Though there was the odd slightly fudgy sound almost inevitable with gut strings, the overall impression was of sound shimmering in the air.
McCreesh fronted the band, mostly leaving the nine singers fanning out either side of him to their own devices (though he occasionally joined in a little unobtrusive singing). Like the conductor, they performed sans sheet music. The six gentlemen wore jackets and open-neck shirts of various hues – perhaps in keeping with the vocal ensemble’s willingness to bring some light-hearted, even slightly goofy theatrics to this concert performance. A beaming James Gilchrist, whose tenor has a delightfully pure tone, even got horizontal on the stage as a snoozing shepherd, and all the male singers made merry with a drinking song.
The more sublime moments usually involved Anna Dennis, whose bell-like soprano rang true and with sigh-inducing expression in King Arthur’s well known solo, ‘Fairest Isle’, and in the passacaglia duet with baritone Marcus Farnsworth. His caresses, both of the luscious vocal and necessarily respectful physical kind, helped make this romantic interlude a performance highlight. All six of Gabrieli’s high-calibre soloists brought something special, including soprano Mhairi Lawson and bass-baritone Ashley Riches injecting gentle fun into the masque led by Cupid and the Cold Genius. Young tenor Hugo Hymas’ solo left one wanting to hear more of his silvery voice.
King Arthur was never more than an idea hovering in the background of this concert, but for those seeking fine Baroque music rather than tales about knights of the round table, the Gabrieli Consort and Players delivered handsomely.
Gabrieli Consort and Players performs King Arthur at Adelaide’s Elder Hall on February 18 and 19