Composers: Purcell
Compositions: King Arthur
Performers: Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
Catalogue Number: Signum Classics SIGCD589

The past and history are not the same thing. It’s worth keeping in mind when Paul McCreesh and Christopher Suckling comment that “the performing edition created for this recording (of Henry Purcell and John Dryden’s semi-opera King Arthur) reflects a desire to fashion a version which offers a convincing musical narrative, despite Purcell’s music being dislocated from much of its original theatrical context”. The upshot is that, when it comes to the performance of early music, scholarship and research count for little if the results don’t convince on their own terms. Does one need to say that no performance by the Gabrieli Consort & Players ever fails to convince on its own terms? And so it is here, with a new version of a work that’s just behind Dido and Aeneas in the masterpiece stakes.

There’s no underestimating the amount of scholarship and research, not to mention decades of practical experience and technical experimentation, that has gone into the Gabrieli’s exploration of Purcell, his music and his world. This is especially so with King Arthur, the text of which was originally written by Dryden in 1684 for King Charles II. The latter died the following year and the work, which was to become one of Purcell’s greatest successes, had to wait a further seven years before Dryden invited the composer to supply the score for a revised text performed under William and Mary. Drawing on multiple primary sources – none of which is in Purcell’s hand – Gabrieli director McCreesh and Suckling have come up with a corker of a performing edition, interpolating instrumental music from Purcell’s other works where necessary and in once instance composing new material.

The soloists – including sopranos Mhairi Lawson and Carolyn Sampson; tenor James Way; baritone Roderick Williams; and bass Ashley Riches – chorus, orchestra and conductor bring to life with exceptional artistry and insight this story of the Briton’s defeat over the Saxons. And the hits – the Cold Genius’s famous song; the How Happy the Lover passacaglia; Cupid’s Fairest Isle – just keep coming. One of 2019’s most exciting releases.

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