PURCELL King Arthur
King Arthur was conceived as a libretto by John Dryden as early as 1684 but since it conveyed extreme partiality to Charles II, the King's death a year later determined its quick demise, if indeed the text ever saw the light of day. Seven years later it re-emerged when Purcell famously collaborated with Dryden in an original semi-opera, rather than merely composing music around an existing adaptation of an older play where the music rarely entered into the dramatic spirit of the whole. Dryden was doubtless forced to make several changes to his initial conception not least because courtly allegory had to fit the monarchy of the moment or else royal noses would have been put out of joint. More important, however, is the willingness of Dryden to collaborate with Purcell in an almost operatic manner. Indeed, as far as we know, the composer did not again enjoy a librettist – let alone one of Dryden's reputation – who would state unequivocally, ''I have been obliged to cramp my verses, and make them rugged to the Reader, that they may be harmonious to the Hearer''. If the co-operation led to a unity of vision in terms of music's expressive role in the overall drama, Purcell was limited to a historical patriotic fantasy with little room for the magic and pathos of, say, the superior Fairy Queen. Yet in the context of a stage presentation, Purcell's music shines through strongly. Those who attended Graham Vick's resplendent production at Covent Garden last month will know how well this drama (one which verges perilously near pantomime, as Westrup wrote) fares with the proper operatic integration of strongly propelled narrative, fantastic spectacle and musical fantasy.
We are left with just the latter in this recording made shortly after the production at the Chatelet in Paris in February this year, though not even the dramatic powers of William Christie can restore the sense of the music's place in the overall scheme. But never mind, this is a score with some magnificent creations and Christie is evidently enchanted by it. Indeed, the difference between this and his previous Purcell recordings – which amount to two Didos (Harmonia Mundi, 7/86 and Erato, see below) and The Fairy Queen (Harmonia Mundi, 1/90) – is that this enchantment rarely falls into the type of continental dialect (if not literally) which can distort Purcell's determinedly indigenous gait. That is not to say Purcell's music should be the preserve of the parochial few but it should surely retain something of its English simplicity and abstraction. The intricate embellishment and sophistication of Christie's Fairy Queen, in particular, created something of a furore amongst those who felt that its heart had been ripped out for French dramatic humours.
No danger of that here as Christie's decisions are almost universally eloquent without disorienting the subject matter. The choral singing is richly textured, sensual and long-breathed, yet always alert to a nuance which can irradiate a passage at a stroke, as Christie does in the bittersweet close of ''Honour prizing'' – easily the best moment in Act 1. The instrumental movements are less robust than either Gardiner or Pinnock (for the latter, the best part of an overall disappointment) though finely moulded so that sinewy counterpoint and rhythmic profile are always strongly relayed. The songs, too, have been acutely prepared and are keenly characterized without resorting to excess. All the basses deliver their fine music with aplomb, the Frost Scene is as affecting as any on record: Petteri Salomaa is an outstanding Cold Genius, technically flawless in this deceptively hard song and he sports an irresistible self-pity. ''Fairest isle'', to mention another perennial favourite, is slow enough to be accorded just respect as a national institution but fast enough to be shaped elegantly by Veronique Gens within a recognizable dance meter. Only ''How blest are shepherds'' in Act 2 seems unnecessarily fussy; the solo singing is less secure here than we have become used to elsewhere.
If there is one drawback to extracting the musical numbers from the 'opera' when they have so clearly been delivered within a theatrical context, it is that the highly contextual characterizations lend themselves less well to the musical continuity of a CD. Viewed in this way, Gardiner has the edge in an account where the music largely plays itself and rolls unassumingly onward in an aura of earthy patriotism. But King Arthur without the play is dramatically a nonsense so why try to pretend? Christie does not but makes the strongest case for this music to date, an account which will refresh those who need an injection to persuade them that they have not yet had their fill of Purcell for one year. A fine achievement. R1 '9506119'