Given how much attention is currently given to historically informed performances of “early music,” it is hard to realize how little interest there was in this discipline only half a century ago. Indeed, one of the earliest champions of this trend was the English countertenor Alfred Deller, who formed the Deller Consort precisely with such performances in mind in 1948. It is thus welcome to note that last month Harmonia Mundi rereleased performances of the music of Henry Purcell conducted by Deller, originally recorded in 1976 and 1978, through their recent hmGold Double collection. Since Deller died in July of 1979 (at the relatively early age of 67), these recordings offer some of his last works in the recording studio.
The major portion of this rerelease is taken by King Arthur (which is also the title of the 2-CD collection). While this is sometimes called an opera, it is actually a generous helping of incidental music for a five-act spectacle conceived by Poet Laureate John Dryden in honor of Britain’s “Foreign King,” William of Orange. Dryden’s plot involved Arthur’s uniting of Britons in the interest of their own sovereignty (thus taking place prior to the building of Camelot and the Round Table). However, the music barely figures in this narrative, offering only occasional commentary and serving primarily to provide intervals of diversion in what must have been a very long (and, if I may editorialize with my opinions of Dryden’s texts, probably very tedious) evening.
In the grand scheme of Purcell’s productivity, the King Arthur score runs the risk of being a “one hit wonder.” These days the most recognizable number would be “Fairest Isle” such by Venus (don’t ask what she’s doing there) in the final act. Nevertheless, most of the individual works amount of a perfectly satisfactory account of Purcell’s composing for solo voices, chorus, and instruments. As might be expected, there are several stimulating trumpet passages and even a few for trumpet duet. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, this collection of incidental music tends to be a bit much; and the music for the final act, which is basically serves as a masque unto itself, can stand on its own as a much better representative of Purcell’s talents.
The same can be said of the other selection in this collection, which is actually identified as a masque. This was composed for a production of William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as a musical interlude for the banquet scene in the second act, along with an overture to precede the beginning of the play. Most notable in this collection is Purcell’s music for soprano duet. Indeed, those who cannot get enough of the “Wir eilen” soprano-alto duet from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 78 cantata, Jesu, der du meine Seele, will probably find Purcell’s duet writing a delightful complement.
Most important to this collection is Deller’s direction. In both selections he keeps a brisk pace, moving the music forward even when the text threatens to hold it in place (if not drag it in the opposite direction). Deller shows scrupulous attention to the blending of the choral passages and to the balance between voice and instruments. Where the sonorities themselves are concerned, nothing could be more satisfying than his approaches to execution.
There is also one interesting curiosity from a historical perspective. The instrumentation for King Arthur involves, in addition to the trumpets, some rather elegant duet writing for a pair of recorders. Both trumpets and recorders were performed by members of Roderick Skeaping’s ensemble, The King’s Musick; and for this recording the second recorder was performed by Nicholas McGegan, who in 1985 would become the Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a post which he continues to hold.