MUSIC / All Psyche'd up

New London Consort QEH, London
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The Independent Culture
A name confined largely to history books, Matthew Locke was an important Restoration composer whose reputation was rapidly eclipsed by that of Henry Purcell. The surviving music is bold, quirky, melodically dry yet naggingly persistent in its awkwardness; rather like the man himself - puffed up and contentious by all accounts, yet also a fighter for English music and a devoted friend.

In the theatre, Locke set about the national musical pastime of trying to make British common sense out of the irrational foreign import, opera. As composer of one of the few surviving masques, Cupid and Death, he certainly had the right credentials for the job.

Scholars praise Psyche, his most competent surviving essay in the operatic genre, for its influence on Purcell's King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. They also approve of its dramatic vitality, head and shoulders above the dramatic torpor of its contemporaries and rivals.

These were empty shows, by and large; the merest plotlines on which to hang a string of scenic and mechanical resources. Psyche, as shown by Philip Pickett's reconstruction with the New London Consort on Thursday, has a real sense of movement, however much it arises from the unexpected whims of furies, gods, or other engines of Baroque theatrical decorum.

Furthermore, Locke didn't just add the music as an afterthought, as was the common practice; he composed it for the occasion. And though parts of it are missing, the result is of individual episodes - the chorus of Elysian lovers, for example - that touch a raw nerve of pathos unique to the stage situation.

Thomas Shadwell's text, apparently too long and too dated, was here replaced by a strong linking narrative - a mlange of Dryden heroics and Hilaire Belloc's cautionary verse - that was read with distinction by Edward de Souza. Yet a thing described is not the thing itself; and the word-pictures of pagan temples and gorgeous palaces made the music for these episodes, though exquisitely arranged from keyboard works by Draghi, sound tame and contingent.

By contrast, the sheer force of spectacle in a real production might give these dances, symphonies and ayres a forceful theatrical context, whoever their composer. And essential to this process would be a revival of the original libretto. Meanwhile, this vividly committed reading, with a CD on its way, was much to be going on with.

Taking a variety of roles, the soprano Catherine Bott, tenor Andrew King and baritone Roderick Williams led a relaxed, persuasive cast. The music for brass and woodwind included hoyboys, the homely English equivalent of the "effete" French oboes of the times. It was a touch of authenticity that stood for the honesty of the whole; scrupulously accurate, yet never vaunting pedantry at the expense of good humour.

Nicholas Williams