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King Arthur

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 20:33 UK time, Monday, 11 May 2009

King Arthur is Arthur Smith to me. I've known the celebrated comedian for 30 years. I appear in his autobiography as Banana Fingers, the first pianist with the National Revue Company, and then again as Rick at Time Out who fixed him up with a roster of nobodies to interview at the Time Out Chat Show one forgettable Edinburgh Festival. I sang Purcell while he spoke about Nell Gwyn, John Dryden and others in our annual Shakespeare celebration last month. Much of his life he has spent trying to recreate the louche decadence of Restoration London in the drunken ambience of the comedy clubs.

So I missed King Arthur at the Barbican last week partly because I was at Arthur's book launch and partly because I'd been away and the new method of sending info by email, which the Barbican has adopted, passed me by. However, I see that Ms Aspden previewed it in the Handel section of this blogsite. She says she was going to miss Dryden as it was to be a music-only performance and I know I would have done too. 'It's a fairy kind of writing dependant on the power of the imagination,' he said of his own style. Dryden made Nell Gwyn's stage career, but she died before King Arthur was written. 'All heiresses are beautiful,' he has a character quip. Gwyn would have laughed at that line, I'm sure.

I didn't say where I was away. Austria, actually. Eisenstadt on Haydn business, to be precise. Sorry Denis. If we bloggers are going to blog each other's bloggees, here's what I learnt. Haydn had two heads. For his bicentenary, both have been placed on display at the church where his body is entombed. You can see them for the cost of a euro. One of the skulls is clean, white and has a strong prominent jaw. This is the one Haydn used when he was alive. Phrenologists - students of the now discredited science which believes character is determined by skull-shape - cut it off and stole it when Haydn died in Vienna and no longer needed it. The opportunity to study the head of a genius overcame any qualms they had.

The other is small, brown and has a broken jaw. This was the substitute obtained when Haydn's employer Prince Nicholas Esterhazy discovered that the corpse he had fetched for reburial in Eisenstadt was headless. 'Better any head than none,' he said. The provenance of the substitute is unknown but it remained Haydn's head for 130 years as the original was not reunited with the body until 1954. At the end of the year, Haydn's proper head will return to his tomb while the other, which was after all his for much longer, will remain on permanent display in the church.

Purcell had only one head. I thought Charles Hazlewood gave a very good assessment of it during his visit to the National Portrait Gallery during The Birth of British Music on Saturday. 'Slightly watery eyes....compassion there...but also pride...' he said. Didn't John Tomlinson sing magnificently? His operatic portamento in 'They that go down' must have been exactly what Purcell heard in his mind's ear. He sang 'Wondrous machine' withy a delicious lilt and made it again the hit it always was. Dryden's words, of course. The young professional singers were feeble by comparison, especially in the pub scene. Put Tomlinson in a bawdy catch with Thomas Allen and, say, Willard White. A fruitier, beefier, more arrogant noise is required, I always feel. Or film the Noblemen's and Gentlemen's Catch Club singing them in their ripe old years. I am sure the cathedral choirs were not so full of baby-faced choral scholars in Purcell's day.

Still, lots of Purcell to come this week. I may have missed King Arthur but I intend to hear Bonduca performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at King's Place on Friday. The title song has a theme borrowed from John Dowland's Lachrimae, if I am not mistaken. Tomorrow (Tuesday 12 May), The Sixteen perform their Purcell and Handel touring programme at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall if you haven't already heard it in your part of the country. On Wednesday, James Rhodes, my Purcell pianist in the Shakespeare show with Arthur Smith, plays at the Roundhouse although whether he plays any Purcell, is up to him. It's not in the programme. I sent him a couple of pieces as possible encores.

Then on Saturday (16 May), the Purcell floodgates open as the Lufthansa Festival begins. The Early Opera Co opens the fortnight with Purcell's Masque from Diocletian and Eccles' Judgement of Paris. Singers include Lucy Crowe and Susan Bickley. On Sunday (17 May), at 4.30pm Charivari Agreable perform Purcell anthems while at 7.30pm Trio Sonnerie with counter-tenor Robin Blaze perform trio sonatas and songs including Music for a While and Fairest Isle. On Monday evening (18 May) Budapest Chamber Opera deliver Purcell's contribution to Orpheus Britannicus with songs by Monteverdi and Vivaldi. All the above take place at St John's Smith Square.

Then there's a day off before the Festival resumes at Westminster Abbey with the Abbey choir and a programme of favourite anthems (My heart is inditing, the Funeral Sentences, the Coronation anthems). And there I shall leave it and come back to you next week with more delights. If I were to recommend what to go for it would be the Early Opera Co, Robin Blaze and Westminster Abbey, but that's only me. The time of the singing of birds is come.

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