Purcell’s King Arthur – Vancouver Early Music

Let me preface this post by saying that I think I’m in love with early music people. I love their weird instruments, I love that an integral aspect of being an early music nerd is being a bigger nerd than the person next to you, I love their anal-retentive adherence to a modestly documented performance practice, I love that when you corner them on this they throw their hands up in a, “Well, what can you do?” sort of gesture and redirect the conversation towards the yet more obscure, and I especially love their sense of play.

I’m starting to think that this sense of play comes from how early music seems to demand an alchemical discipline rather than a chemical one. The documentation we have from this period is from scholars who existed before a formalized scientific method so many aspects of early music end up reeking of more myth than science. Scholars just hadn’t yet been gifted the rigorous documentation skills that led to mankind’s ability to build science on the shoulders of those who had come before which leaves a lot of room for questions surrounding exactly how it was done. Moreover, if you’re being completely honest you’ll have to admit that it’s pretty much impossible to document performance practice with 100% accuracy. Don’t believe me? Talk to a jazz musician about the concept of “swing”.

Early Music Vancouver mounted a semi-demi-staged version of Purcell’s King Arthur last night at the Chan that they playfully dubbed “A Restoration Spectacular”. Alex Weimann led the charge and was backed by Early Music Vancouver’s Festival Orchestra and Chorus. There was plenty of solo material to distribute amongst the chorus-members and they all seemed to relish the chance to attack this score. It was unfortunate that counter-tenor Matthew-White was, as the program put it, “indisposed” but American mezzo Meg Bragle did an admirable job as a sub. Perhaps the only place we truly missed him was the trio, “For Folded Flocks, on Fruitful Plains” for bass, tenor and counter-tenor. It just would have been nice to hear such an unusual trio of voices sing given the evening’s high standard of performance.

The first rule about Purcell’s King Arthur is that you have to talk about the Cold Genius scene if you talk about Purcell’s King Arthur. The titular aria from this scene has been popularized by a diverse cast of music makers (Probably most diverse of all would be Klaus Nomi) who are probably drawn to the gorgeous and surprising turns of harmony as much as (And this is typical of Purcell) the vivid picture it paints of a slumbering frozen giant waking from a deep slumber. Scholars disagree on exactly what Purcell was trying to indicate in his score but their seems to be some consensus that the singer is supposed to sing the line with some kind of tremolo in order to give the impression of chattering teeth. The notation used in the score isn’t standard by common-practice standards and this is reflected in the variety of approaches singers bring to the piece. Observe:

Our beloved Klaus Nomi:

…and different but equally unusual:

Overall the evening was full of that geeky sense of play that is unique to early music folks. I caught an especially sly glance between Weimann and archlutist Sylvain Bergeron as Weimann teetered on the edge of pulling a Jerry Lee Lewis at his harpsichord during the Chaconne at the end of the night. Although I’m sure that he’s such a nerd that he knew that by not kicking his bench out into the audience he was failing to adhere to standardized performance practice.

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