Arne: Alfred / Mcgegan, Smith, Brandes, Daniels, Et Al

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‘Rule, Britannia’ is known to everybody, but almost nobody knows its original context. It was composed as a ‘Grand Ode’ to serve as finale to Thomas Arne’s Alfred. This masque – sometimes described as a serenata, an opera or (absurdly) an oratorio – was designed as a theatre entertainment but was first performed for the Prince of Wales at Cliveden in 1740. It had a long and varied history: it was revived several times in the London theatres, not always exclusively with Arne’s music (one revival was mainly to music by Charles Burney, more talented as historian than composer). The revivals took many different forms and Arne may have written something like 70 numbers for it, but only the 22 recorded here and another eight survive (they are all printed in the 1981 Musica Britannica volume). It is a patriotic tale, thinly based on history: King Alfred (of culinary notoriety) turns up in the countryside, apparently after defeat by the Danes, is reunited with his family, and plans and executes victory over the enemy. The original spoken dialogue, not included here, is by James Thomson and David Mallett.

` This recording offers the overture – a spirited three-movement piece with a slow section in Arne’s typical plaintive vein – and 18 songs, plus a couple of ensembles. Arne was a gifted theatre composer and many of the songs happily catch the mood and situation, the sad ones in particular – there is Queen Eltruda’s mournful little opening air, with its pathetic flute echoes; Prince Edward’s touching ‘Why beats my heart’, with its graceful lines and hints of the minor key, when he is reunited with his father; there is Edith’s lament for her ‘youth adorn’d with ev’ry art’, with its switch from E major to E minor as she relates her beloved’s death’ and later there are extraordinary airs for the Spirits, both in D minor – one a solemn prayer, the other using oboes to imitate weeping. Some of the quicker numbers are more ordinary, but most are inventive as well as ingeniously and often evocatively written.

Nicholas McGegan is adept at capturing the character of these pieces; his tempos are well chosen and he brings out the distinctive orchestration in those items that use wind instruments (chiefly oboes and horns, but of course trumpets on occasion). David Daniels sings Edward’s music – originally for a castrato, the famous Guadagni – in his pleasantly even and fluid countertenor, and Jamie MacDougall, an admirable stylist, phrases gracefully and projects the words clearly as Alfred – and his pianissimo singing is finely controlled in Alfred’s big central number, ‘From the dawn’. Of the two sopranos, Christine Brandes is bright and direct in manner in the music for the shepherdess Emma and in the first of the Spirit airs; Jennifer Smith’s Eltruda is done with finesse and warmth. Oh, I nearly forgot to mention ‘Rule Britannia’: it is shared between MacDougall and Smith, as King Alfred and Queen Eltruda, with trumpets and horns, and you may find the tune, as Arne wrote it – not to say the harmony and the orchestration – slightly different from what you are used to. And better, actually. Altogether a disc I very much enjoyed.'

-- Stanley Sadie, Gramophone [9/1999]


Product Description:


  • Catalog Number: DHM51314


  • UPC: 756055131427


  • Label: RCA


  • Composer: Thomas Augustine Arne


  • Conductor: Nicholas McGegan


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus


  • Performer: Christine Brandes, David Daniels, Jamie MacDougall, Jennifer Smith



Works:


  1. Alfred

    Composer: Thomas Augustine Arne

    Ensemble: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus

    Performer: Christine Brandes (Soprano), David Daniels (Countertenor), Jamie MacDougall (Tenor), Jennifer Smith (Soprano)

    Conductor: Nicholas McGegan