In Conversation With Paul McCreesh

Ahead of Gabrieli’s much anticipated European tour of Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur, which begins with our performance at St. John’s Smith Square in London on 16 July, we talked to our Artistic Director Paul McCreesh about his love of Purcell, and just what makes this great British composer so special:

Gabrieli has a long history of performing Purcell – his music seems to have been one of the mainstays of the ensemble’s diary throughout our 30 plus years, from the 1990s recordings of Harmonia Sacra and Hail Bright Cecilia to our current, much-loved Purcell/Britten programme ‘Three Odes for St Cecilia’. Can you tell us what it is that draws you to Purcell’s music, and is it good to be performing King Arthur in particular after a hiatus of nearly 20 years?

It’s hard to say what it is that I most like about Purcell, perhaps his combination of English reticence with an underlying current of passion and expressivity. Purcell’s music is very subtle but there is no denying its profound beauty; his vocal music in particular is wonderfully expressive. Gabrieli have always loved performing Purcell’s music, and if, over a post-concert pint, I ever ask our musicians what new project they would like to work on, Purcell always comes up very quickly. I can’t quite believe that it’s been getting on for 20 years since we last performed King Arthur, but I do seem to remember having lots of fun touring the work, in Holland especially. In fact, there was a particular moment on that tour that has gone down in Gabrieli history where a certain singer…no names…ended up in a canal…but let’s move swiftly on…[don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this particular story!]

What made you decide to programme King Arthur now, rather than say Dido & Aeneas or The Fairy Queen?

Well, as always with programming, partly because we were asked to do it, but also because King Arthur has always been a bigger challenge for me than the other two works. Dido, whilst ever popular and full of wonderful music is, I feel, a somewhat undeveloped work, simply by dint of it being incomplete. Fairy Queen on the other hand, is more readily performed, not just because there is so much fantastic music in the score, but also because it is so well arranged into various self-contained ‘masques’. King Arthur suffers in comparison because the state of the sources is so confused, and even today there is more work to be done in coming to a successful edition of this piece, but nevertheless it does contain some truly magnificent music, and can work well in concert.

Give us a guided tour of the score: what are the moments that really stand out for you, that the uninitiated should look out for, and what are the most outstanding parts of the score? 

The most import thing to remember is that King Arthur was written as incidental music to a play, so if you are looking for an operatic structure, you will look in vain – this is why it’s very important to remember the phrase  ‘semi-opera’ with Purcell’s works. It’s an interesting piece in that Dryden’s play explores something of the history of Britishness, which of course is something that is innately realised in Purcell’s accompanying music. As with Fairy Queen, I long for the days when we can do these pieces on stage with spoken text; in Purcell’s day they had the most spectacular Baroque stage effects, but sadly, I think you’d need the budget of a production on the scale of Starlight Express or something similar! Maybe one day!

In terms of the score, it is jam packed with fine music, much of it justly celebrated. The ‘Frost Scene’ is especially well known, but I particularly love the Fourth Act which has a very long vocal Chaconne (ground bass movement), on the beauty of joy and love that is especially impressive.

Purcell is known for his great sense of humour (as you noted at our recent Wigmore Hall concerts), are there any comic highlights to look out for in the score? 

It always fascinates me that Purcell was equally adept at setting some of the most thoughtful religious poetry of the period, while at the same time composing some of the filthiest catches and drinking songs in the English language! Much of the music in King Arthur has a light touch, and there are surely moments which should raise a smile

The original semi-opera contains large sections of spoken text, which is usually abandoned for modern performances – how have you decided which version of King Arthur to perform? 

In this performance we will just present the music – it is definitely not necessary to understand the machinations of the play in order to appreciate the music, which does stand alone perfectly well.

Gabrieli’s cast for King Arthur includes several of the singers who joined us for our recent Purcell Birthday Odes for Queen Mary concerts at Wigmore Hall. Can you tell us what it is like to explore the works of one composer with the same artists, and how this enriches the performing experience?

Purcell’s vocal music has its own particular style, and it is always key to me to work with singers who are prepared to explore this music in great detail. Although Purcell’s writing has its origins in staged productions, it is still a very long way from Handel or indeed any other Baroque music. Interestingly enough, over the years we have of course worked with a number of different singers, but I think Gabrieli’s style has remained remarkably consistent; and it is wonderful to work with the new generation of singers who are coming through at the moment, many of whom are extremely gifted in this repertoire.

Immediately after our St. John’s Smith Square concert, Gabrieli travels to Europe for two further performances: a return to Festival de Beaune, where we have performed every year for over 20 years now, and a debut, at Herrenchiemsee Festivalnear Munich. Being a familiar name and a regular visitor is nice, but so is a debut: what is special about these events for you? 

It is always wonderful returning to Beaune, partly because it is the most important Baroque festival in France, but also because the audience are extremely discerning. Gabrieli are the most invited group in the history of that festival, and it has certainly become a home-away-from-home for us in Europe, and a regular annual pilgrimage to check that Burgundy’s winemaker’s are still up to scratch…we have an extremely discerning first trumpeter to help us in this evaluation. ..

Herrenchiemsee is an extraordinary Baroque palace, in the middle of a lake; I have worked there before as a guest conductor, and I just know that Gabrieli will love the experience of playing and singing in this amazing venue.

It is wonderful to be renewing our association with St. John’s Smith Square as it is such a lovely London venue for Baroque music, and somewhere that Gabrieli have always enjoyed performing in.

Purcell’s music has resonated with composers and musicians (particularly in Britain) across the centuries, including Benjamin Britten and even The Who and the Pet Shop Boys! Why do you think his writing continues to have such an influence even today? 

The most important thing is not just Purcell’s extraordinary harmonic invention, but also the way he developed a vocal style that was half-recitative, half-sung. His shadow is cast over all English music – not just with the obvious connections such as Britten and Tippett (who themselves cited Purcell has an inspiration);  I also noticed recently how much the vocal lines in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, are written in that half spoken / half  sung style which is obviously inspired by Purcell.  Of course, Purcell was also known for his genius in ground-bass; he even used to claim that it was quite a simple thing to compose ‘upon a ground’ while clearly knowing that it’s not at all, and that he could do it better than anyone else! Those points of influence are always there; I believe that Purcell achieved a subtlety in his vocal writing that some composers have equalled, but never bettered.

Friday 26 June 2015