Music : Purcell Tercentenary Barbican Centre/ Westminster Abbey London
Thursday 23 November 1995
For those who had missed the year's events so far, the Barbican offered a timely crash-course life-and-works, including a preview showing of Tony Palmer's biopic, England, My England, with the late Robert Stephens.
But the main thrust was theatrical: three of the semi-operas given on consecutive nights with linking narrative in lieu of the original dialogue. This year we've learnt to accept them done this way as a means of rescuing brilliant music (some 10 hours of it) trapped in otiose theatrical forms. As Robin Holloway has observed of Elgar's oratorios, our scant ration of musical genius has too often been cramped by unsuitable traditions. Perhaps it's just part of being British: never quite hitting the mark; brilliant ideas, but often the right man in the wrong place and time.
Yet here was plenty of modern skill to admire. With the Academy of Ancient Music and chorus, Christopher Hogwood gave well-cushioned accounts of Come Ye Sons of Art and The Indian Queen on Friday, matching the graceful steps of the New York Baroque Dance Company and Simon Russell Beale's exuberant narration.
The Sixteen and Harry Christophers showed their own way with early music, sharp-edged, driven and precise, in The Fairy Queen on Saturday. There was perhaps too much home-counties humour in Jeremy Sams's linking narration but, with virtually no plot to work on, it was a good try. Fine individual performances included Richard Suart as the tipsy yokel.
Dioclesian completed the trilogy: strong, grave music with delightful pastoral interludes, a leading role for rising young bass Paul Robinson and a strong narrative text by Roger Savage, nobly read by Janet Suzman.
The Abbey's injunction against dancing was lifted on Tuesday for Tippett's Trumpet Tune with Boogie, a BBC commission from a great Purcellian. No less swinging was the hornpipe from his precursor's Abdelazer suite, recycled, in Part 2, in the modern variations of Britten's Young Person's Guide. Continuity was the theme, with works by Byrd, Handel and Elgar all in some way reflecting the master's influence.
But the celebration ended in intimacy: the Evening Hymn, sung with all James Bowman's sublime artistry and with Purcell's organist successor, Martin Neary, at the keyboard. It was a touching moment: a time of reflection and moistening of the eye as the solitary voice filled the abbey vaulting - a kind of poetry in this country we do very well indeed.
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