Listening to Early Music

“King Arthur” by Henry Purcell (10/09/1659 – 21/11/1695)

Vox Luminis performing with the “La Fenice” orchestra.

For this exercise I was unable to attend a live Early Music performance but I was able to find a couple of full performances on YouTube. This one in particular stood out: Henry Purcell’s “King Arthur” performed by Vox Luminis and the Ensemble La Fenice (Conductor: Jean Tubery).

After spending so much time listening to snippets of music from these period instruments it’s nice to be able to sit back and enjoy a full performance and hear them in context. The following instruments are noted:

The format of this piece is particularly enchanting, that of “semi-opera” or “English Opera” whereby the primary storyline is spoken and interspersed with lively and complex vocal and orchestral parts. As the story progresses we sometimes see the singers play out part of the story on the stage in front of the musicians which looks wonderfully ad-libbed.

The opera is in five acts and tells the story (via a libretto by John Dryden) of King Arthur and his struggles against the invading Saxons. The original cast list was much larger with individual players taking individual parts but in this production all of the spoken parts are taken by the singers as the focus is very much on the music. The opera was originally staged in the “Restoration spectacular” style with much scenery and on stage business, but we experience a pared back performance with what little acting there is happening wherever it seems convenient.

Of the instruments used, the harpsichord takes the lion’s share, playing through most sections and providing a suitable background and basso continuo along with the cello which the other instruments use to great effect.

One musician handles both of the fretted instruments (theorbo and guitar), one handles the harpsichord and organ and the conductor occasionally steps in to play the second recorder but aside from this all parts are dedicated and play throughout giving us only twelve musicians, fourteen voices and the conductor, twenty seven in total. This is in dramatic contrast with the massed choirs and orchestras that we see in modern presentations but I find that the music doesn’t suffer for it. There is a feel of real space between the parts and the vocal lines aren’t battling against the force of two full string sections. It also gives us the opportunity for delightfully real and quite dramatic slip-ups which test the professionalism of the performers such as at 40:37 in this production where they seem to have mislaid their trumpets. The conductor, Jean Tubéry, handles it all with excellent grace and humour and the audience appreciates these moments greatly.

As previously mentioned, while researching the previous piece (Early Instruments) I listened to a lot of these instruments in isolation but hearing them alongside other complementary tones really places them and one can appreciate why they became prevalent during the period. The shawm in particular became more relevant as I noticed that when played in isolation it has a tendency to lean toward a “Hey-nonny-no” style folksiness with a shrill tone that might easily become tiresome. When balanced by the strings and bassoon it smoothed out splendidly.

Overall this was a worthwhile and welcome production which has allowed me to see Purcell in a new light. He’s clearly extraordinarily influential and this is shown handsomely in the beginning of the third act (click here) where we can hear where Michael Nyman found his theme for “Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds”.

Click here to see the reference production.