In Conversation With Purcell Soloists

For the second and final part of our artist interviews in the run-up to our St. John’s Smith Square concert on 16 July, we caught up with three of our soloists, Nicholas MulroyAshley Riches and Anna Dennis, to talk to them about Purcell and performing with Gabrieli:


You have performed with Gabrieli and Paul McCreesh many times over the years, how does it differ from working with other groups and other conductors?

I always enjoy working with this group hugely. Paul and the musicians have a brilliant, open, exploratory approach. There’s a willingness to experiment that comes from time together and a shared desire to get to the core of the music and its story. We did some Purcell (Odes for Queen Mary) at the Wigmore Hall earlier this summer, which was a real highlight for me – much of the music was not very well known, but completely inspired, and that journey of discovery was really memorable. Some marvellous music making, too, from people I’m lucky to have as colleagues.

This week, we’re also about to go on something of a Bach pilgrimage – to Weimar and Leipzig – to sing his Matthew and John Passions, which is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time now.

What is it about Purcell that sets his music apart from other composers?

Cleverer folk than me will put this better than I can, but, like many great artists, his ability to weave magic with minimal means is a timeless gift – think of his endlessly inventive ground-basses or his apparently simple songs which are still unimprovable 300 and some years later. Another thing that places him in the very top rank of composers is his ability to switch so easily from the joyous to the tragic, from contemplative stillness to foot-tapping dance. Most composers are happier in certain modes; Purcell could do it all (and don’t forget he was only 35 when he died!).

St John’s, Beaune, Herrenchiemsee…which concert are you most looking forward to, and why?

I’m going to have to be dully noncommittal. It’s always lovely to perform in London – especially, I suppose, when performing a piece that is quintessentially British (and one of the pinnacles of British music to boot). I’ve been lucky enough to go to Beaune with Gabrieli a few times: it’s a favourite destination for many musicians – the venues are glorious and the audience are always good listeners…and it doesn’t hurt that it’s in the heart of Burgundy for some post-concert refreshment! Herrenchiemsee I’ve never been to, but it sounds extraordinary so I’m looking forward to them all. I promise I’m not just being polite!


When did you first perform Purcell and what is special or different about his music for you?

I performed Dido and Aeneas when I was a student, but my first professional performance of Purcell was The Fairy Queen with Gabrieli in 2012. What I love most is the flexibility of the music, gliding from strictly rhythmic passages to more spacious recitative sections. It allows great expressivity in the word setting, for which Purcell is so famous.

What are you most looking forward to in this project?

Semi-staging is the ideal format for King Arthur. I’m really looking forward to the interplay between concert and more dramatic performance, and moving from being a soloist to being part of the ensemble. It’s a really dynamic environment and helps the audience move between engaging with serious, emotional moments to appreciating the lighter comic passages. This contrast seems to me absolutely central to Purcell’s music.

How do you memorise music?

As many ways as I can find! That’s important though, as you don’t want to be reliant on one thing. I sing or speak the text repeatedly for the muscle memory, listen to recordings to link words with musical cues, use images to create a narrative through a text (especially if it’s in a foreign language) – in short, try anything I can; singers are always terrified of forgetting the words!

What is your musical guilty pleasure?

Probably I have too many! Chart music in the car, Miss Saigon at home…It’s important not to limit yourself, though. You can discover more about the way music speaks to people – intellectually and viscerally – by taking in different genres and ways of performance. The qualities that make music a joy are no respecters of style!


When did you first perform Purcell?

My first performance of Purcell was singing Dido’s Lament in my secondary school production of Romeo and Juliet when I was about fifteen.

What should we listen out for in your music?

In King Arthur I’ll be singing the Fairest Isle, a dreamy evocation of Albion as a utopian island peopled with happy lovers. Someone recently suggested to me that it would make a far better, if more sultry, national anthem than the one we have…Another of my tunes, the duet Two Daughters of this Aged Stream, is a very saucy song about skinny dipping!

What else are you doing this month?

This summer I am moving to the coast where I hope to be swimming in the sea a lot (but certainly wearing a bathing costume!) and singing concerts of Handel in Dresden, Pergolesi in Lech, Mozart in New York, and something called  “The Devil’s Jukebox” at the Wilderness pop Festival in Oxfordshire.