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Bonduca and Phantasm

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 17:26 UK time, Tuesday, 26 May 2009

st_johns_smith_square.jpgAlthough the masque or semi-opera is supposed to have died out after Purcell, it has been around in other forms since the 17th century. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's (OAE's) entertaining performance of Bonduca showed how it resembled propaganda at the end of their week of concerts at London's King's Place. Bonduca is Boadicea who, like England at the time (1695), was anti-Rome. Caratach is Caradoc, a kilted, muscular Briton, depicted as more heroic than his Queen, just as the Orangeman William was presented before his wife, Mary, the heir of James II. (Neither Victoria nor Elizabeth II elevated their spouses in this way.) This inherent misogyny was part of the message of the 'play' as we learnt from the witty pre-concert talk given by violinist Roy Mowatt who had devised the performing edition.

The music is Purcell's last theatrical score. His premature death came later that year. There is no sense that the uninspiring, politically motivated text inhibited his creativity. The drunks' song Jack Thou are a Toper has a humorously boozy lilt and the chorus Britons Strike Home is as sinew-stiffening as anything he wrote. Sing Ye Druids runs over a cunning ground bass and Oh Lead Me borrows its opening phrase from Dowland's Lachrimae in a conscious harking back to a golden age. The OAE string tone turned and glinted like the facets of a diamond in the cool, clear acoustic. Golden long notes beamed through the counterpoint. The singers in the Choir of the Enlightenment sounded a little too young: not raddled enough as drunks, not hoary enough as druids.

Hard on the OAE's heels came the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music which celebrated Purcell in almost every concert. The festival was shorter this year than previously but contained no fewer events. More compact, said the manager of St John's Smith Square where most of them were held. They seemed to have taken a leaf from the King's Place book with more, shorter concerts per evening. Attendances were good, said the manager, detecting no detrimental effect.

I attended the viol consort Phantasm's 7pm show on Friday evening which was very short indeed. The programme suggested it would last until 9pm but it was over before 8.30pm including a 20-minute interval and an encore. It is one thing to leave the audience wanting more, but another to make them feel short-changed.

Still, the music filled the Queen Anne church with the perfect beauty of a wildflower garden. Each Purcell four-part Fantazia began with a simple solo pattern, then opened its petals as the other instruments joined, imitated and transformed the theme. The group leapt at the quick sections like dancing couples, the bass viols opposite the trebles, challenging each other in their courtship nimbleness, the tenor sitting out until the masterpiece of the five-part Fantazia Upon One Note which ended the concert, the players stepping sedately around the dominant's continuous tone as if it were a maypole.

Viol music was already dated by Purcell's day when the more modern and versatile violin family had become the mode. His music then was a conscious homage to bygone composers represented exquisitely in the programme by Parsons, Byrd, Gibbons, Jenkins, and Lawes. There isn't a body of music like the English viol repertoire for charm, modesty and the ability to soothe and alleviate anxiety. The genius in Purcell took consort music to its greatest height.

If the four composers currently being celebrated by BBC blogs were made to fight or entered in a composing competition, Purcell would win every time. None of the others composed anything with the wit and imagination of the Fantazia Upon One Note, none wrote an aria as emotive as When I am Laid and none set words so sublimely as Purcell in Music For a While. Comparisons are pertinent. All the others set English words - Haydn's melodies to the Scottish songs are not even original, Mendelssohn's to the anthems far too sentimental, and Handel's even in Messiah tend always towards the flashy. I rest my case and throw down the gauntlet on Purcell's behalf. Come on Georgey, Joe and Felix, if you think you're hard enough.....

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