MUSIC / A maggot un-masqued: Nicholas Williams on modern realisations of Purcell

Facts about Henry Purcell are as hard to come by as facts about Shakespeare, which is bad news for anyone planning celebrations for the tercentenary of his death next year. Even more depressing could be the realisation that, with most of his work now purloined by the early music brigade, the standard orchestra will be a mute swan in terms of saluting the achievement of possibly our greatest composer.

Mark Elder suggested as much on Wednesday evening at Christ Church, Spitalfields, when he playfully remarked that Britten's edition of Purcell's Chacony might not be quite in line with current standards of authenticity. True, Britten's Purcell 'realisations', noted in their own time, may be sources of regret for today's purists. But his comment also implied that, rather than return to the originals, a way forward for modern festivals would be to explore the matter from the opposite direction - through the creative interaction of Purcell with his successors.

In fact, this concluding concert of the Spitalfields Festival, though not a tribute as such, was a model of how it should be done. The Chacony itself stood for the Purcell- Britten axis, in a warm, relaxed account by the City of London Sinfonia, making the most of cunningly voiced string textures that were inimitably Britten for all their devotion to the older composer. In addition, the enigmatic Lachrymae, with Stephen Tees the competent soloist in the later version for strings and viola, showed Britten paying respect to another figure, Dowland, through a closely woven variation set that hovered between Jacobean and contemporary sounds.

In both pieces the composer's interest lay in the lyrical, formal scope of an earlier art. By contrast, John Buller, in his festival commission Mr Purcell's Maggot, touched on another area of Purcell's activity: his involvement with the opera-masque. As composer of ENO's recent Bacchae, and with a pedigree of involvement in Greek drama, Buller's interest in Purcell's theatre seems only natural. At the same time, in spirit and technique, the work as likely drew influence from a more recent homage to the masque tradition: Hugh Wood's classic 1960s score, Scenes from Milton's Comus.

The text, a blend of forest episodes from Dryden's King Arthur with the 'Dark Wood' of Dante's Inferno, was shared by the Joyful Company of Singers and the tenor Thomas Randle; his sinuous arioso, sung with vigorous conviction, swooped and soared in perfect rendition of the words above the snarling trombone and knotted woodwind that formed the principal texture of the work. Notable interludes for double bassoon and cello (shades here of Britten's Death in Venice), and later for high violins, were framed by choral chants and hollow string chords like eerie footfalls in the night.

But leading where? The 'maggot' of the title - not the anglers' bait, but an old word for a trifle or fancy - seemed wide of the mark for serious music with a pulse of its own and a sense of expectation. The ending was premature; more was needed for the complete picture. If this is work in progress, further developments could indeed prove intriguing.

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