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In 1987, having given many concerts, and after making a handful of recordings for smaller companies, Robert King met the owner of Hyperion Records and proposed four recording projects. The next morning, in a brief telephone call, Ted Perry set the succinct style that has characterized repertoire meetings ever since: “I like all four projects: we’ll record them.” The first disc, of countertenor duets by Purcell and Blow, became a best-seller.
Ten years and over fifty Hyperion CD releases later, The King’s Consort is one of the world’s most recorded period-instrument orchestras. Now exclusive to Hyperion, it has recorded a large and colourful array of repertoire: Handel oratorios, operas, ceremonial music and instrumental works, Dowland lute songs, Mozart Sonatas, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Gabrieli Christmas motets, Albinoni instrumental music, Vivaldi concertos and church music, complete cycles of Purcell odes, songs and sacred music, Bach’s Mass in B minor and much more, gathering along the way a shoal of international awards.
Busy though it is in the recording studio (or, to be accurate, in a range of venues which possess ‘natural’ acoustics), it would be wrong to think that The King’s Consort is predominantly a recording orchestra. Many concerts and tours have taken it all over the world: Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Eire, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Taiwan and, of course, the British Isles.
It has also presented fully-staged opera productions in London, Paris, Schwetzingen, Tokyo and Osaka. The Consort has appeared at major festivals across the globe, played before Kings, Queens, Presidents, Ambassadors and hundreds of thousands of music lovers, recorded music for feature films, and broadcast to millions on television and radio, always presenting works both familiar and unfamiliar with a vital, infectious performing style.
This ‘Baroque Collection’ celebrates ten years of The King’s Consort’s association with Hyperion by presenting twenty-one musical jewels from those fifty CD releases. Deciding what to include—rather harder, what to leave out—was very difficult, because those discs contain such a lot of good music! You will hear splendid performances from the Consort and its distinguished array of choirs, soloists and instrumentalists. We look forward to the next ten years—and to recording the next fifty CDs!
Vivaldi Dixit Dominus
Vivaldi’s second setting of the Psalm Dixit Dominus, RV595, was discovered only in the late 1960s in the National Library in Prague. Almost certainly composed for the Pietà (the Venetian charitable institution for foundlings where Vivaldi worked as violin master and orchestral director), the manuscript was probably taken back to Bohemia by Balthasar Knapp. Dixit Dominus was the first of the five Psalms sung at Vespers on Sundays or feast days, explaining both the frequency of its setting and its tendency to festive grandeur. Vivaldi’s setting begins in dazzling style, with sparkling orchestral lines and splendid choral writing.
Handel Welcome as the dawn of day After the opening celebrations of Act I, the eponymous Solomon welcomes his wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, and promises her a new palace. We are left in no doubt as to the attraction Solomon feels for his Queen and, to reinforce this feeling, Handel provides a hymn to their undying love. Set over a walking bass, ‘Welcome as the dawn of day’ is one of the composer’s most radiant duets, full of delicious interplay between the two soloists.
Telemann Harlequinade: Der schertzende Tritonus and Der stürmende Aeolus
Telemann’s Water Music was composed for the celebrations, held on 6 April 1723, for the centenary of the founding of Hamburg’s Admiralitäts-Kollegium. In ten varied movements Telemann pictured the sea in all its moods and characterized figures from the world of ancient mythology. In the Harlequinade, Triton, Neptune’s son, is pictured in jaunty form. In between three repetitions of the main, stomping theme come two short episodes where the tune is taken by the bass instruments, with a guitar-like, pizzicato accompaniment provided by the upper strings. With Aeolus, lord of the winds, Telemann is on magnificently blustrous form, violently portraying a stormy ocean.
Handel Who is like unto Thee, O Lord?
During 1745, whilst King George II was away in Hanover, Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, landed with his army in Scotland and started to march south; a patriotic fervour that had not been seen in London for many years set in. Songs were written to support the army, and Handel provided The Occasional Oratorio, recycling a number of fine movements from earlier works. With its ‘Grave’ opening, scored in sixteen parts, ‘Who is like unto Thee?’ is a spine-tingling moment which leads into one of the composer’s best-known choruses, ‘He gave them hailstones for rain’, first heard in 1739 in Israel in Egypt. The orchestral opening builds into the entry of two opposing choruses who indulge in musical warfare, driven on by a wild orchestral accompaniment. Handel’s timpanist must have had a field day!
Part III of The Occasional Oratorio begins with an orchestral symphony. For the second movement Handel returned to the Musette of his Concerto Grosso in E flat (Opus 6 No 6) which, in its rich string scoring and glorious melodies bears striking resemblances to Corelli’s famous ‘Christmas Concerto’. The pastoral outer sections are contrasted with a more sprightly middle section.
Bach Gloria in excelsis Deo and Et in terra pax Bach’s great Mass in B minor, composed late in his life, seems to have been intended to be a summation of his art, a document for future generations, and a supreme personal opportunity to unite his faith in God with his life’s work as a musician. With an eye to posterity—perhaps to serve as models of his work—he inserted and adapted movements he had written over the past thirty years. The Gloria may first have been performed in Dresden around 1733. It opens in the bright major key of D, introducing the first entries of trumpets and timpani and leads, without a break, into the ‘Et in terra pax’, and a striking comparison of the brightness of heaven with the more humble lowliness of earth. Bach gives the two elements symbolic numerical equality (the hundred triple-time bars of the ‘heavenly’ first section are matched by seventy-five bars of four-beat writing for earth) and builds up the movement with inexorable power. The eventual entries of the trumpets symbolically unite earth with heaven.
This recording was the first to use, as Bach intended, boys voices for the soprano and alto lines of all the solos and choruses, bringing a unique tonal colour that it is quite inimitable.
Vivaldi Esurientes implevit
Vivaldi’s first setting of the Magnificat, RV610A, was probably written for the Pietà around 1715. Preceded by some especially vigorous choral and orchestral writing for ‘Fecit potentiam’ (‘He hath showed strength’), and followed by an equally notable chorus, the ‘Esurientes implevit bonis’ is a delicious oasis of calm, with two sopranos duetting exquisitely over a simple ostinato bass line.
Handel To God who made the radiant sun
The late 1740s produced from Handel a quartet of oratorios with distinctly militaristic overtones: Judas Maccabaeus, The Occasional Oratorio, Joshua and Alexander Balus (all recorded by The King’s Consort for Hyperion). Mention of nature, especially of the sun, moon and stars, often spurs Handel into some of his finest music in the oratorios: towards the end of Alexander Balus Jonathan, the leader of the Jews, sings a ravishing aria in praise of God’s creation.
Purcell Hear my prayer, O Lord
Purcell’s eight-part setting of Hear my prayer, O Lord is one of the truly great anthems of the English church music repertory, dating from around 1680. It is probably the opening section of a larger piece that the composer did not complete. With a despairing text and large vocal forces at his disposal, Purcell’s harmonic language—always, after the opening phrases, in at least six parts—is exceptional, but the most extraordinary feature of the anthem is the build-up which Purcell orchestrates from the outset. Here is an inexorable vocal crescendo lasting over two minutes, culminating on a monumental discord at the penultimate bar.
Bach Andante from Trio Sonata in D minor
Bach’s six Orgel-Trios were composed to aid his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann learn the organ. The texture of the works is much closer to that of the instrumental trio sonata, strongly influenced by the Italian chamber sonata, and it is not such a surprise to find that Bach included arrangements of earlier instrumental works in his organ trio sonatas. Returning to Bach’s sources, Robert King has arranged the six sonatas for a variety of instrumental combinations. The first movement of the Sonata in D minor, BWV527, is wonderfully poised, with an especially melancholy opening theme.
Purcell Oh! fair Cedaria
Purcell’s Oh! fair Cedaria is a masterpiece. Not published until seven years after the composer’s untimely death, it first appeared in the 1702 edition of Orpheus Britannicus. The song’s opening is exquisite, with a ravishing melisma on ‘Oh!’ leading to a series of sighing ‘hide those eyes’ and erotic settings of the word ‘dies’. ‘Such beauty and charms are seen’ is underpinned by a graceful, four-bar ground bass: the tantalizing melismas on ‘charms’ leave us in no doubt of Cedaria’s matchless ‘beauty, wit and grace’. The last stanza is extraordinary, containing a series of increasingly desolate pleas to ‘pity me’: the final ‘Unless I may your favour have, I can’t one moment live’ is underpinned by a magically-descending bass line. Such a perfect song leaves us in little doubt as to why Purcell’s contemporaries held him in universal awe.
Handel In Jehovah’s awful sight
By 1733 Handel’s twenty-year run of successfully presenting operas in Italian to the London public was finished; audiences had finally lost interest. The previous year, almost by accident, he had introduced oratorio to London and now he tried his luck with a second oratorio, recounting the story of the Old Testament prophetess Deborah. Despite a curious plot, Handel’s music was magnificent. Deborah’s Act II aria ‘In Jehovah’s awful sight’ is a masterpiece, with slow repeated chords from the strings and two high bassoons set against the solo lines of the soprano soloist and a lone oboe: the harmonies in the middle section are some of the most intense in the whole of Handel’s output. Taken directly from the scene in the Brockes Passion where the Daughter of Zion comments on Judas’ suicide, here Deborah warns that tyrants who ‘place in vanity their trust’ are but dust in the sight of God.
Vivaldi In furore iustissimae irae
Vivaldi’s fine motet In furore iustissimae irae, RV626, was probably written during one of his visits to Rome in the early 1720s. The opening aria shows Vivaldi’s typically brilliant, virtuoso writing for solo voice: the best of the girls at the Pietà must have possessed fine vocal techniques. The text is addressed directly to God and to Jesus, and the motet’s stormy opening aria, complete with rushing scales and powerful chromatic descents, splendidly depicts divine wrath at human misdeeds in marvellously powerful writing.
Handel Alla Hornpipe
On Wednesday 17 July 1717 most of London’s dignitaries and nobility were summoned by King George I to a spectacular outdoor event on the River Thames. The party boarded open barges at Whitehall and sailed three miles up river to Chelsea: there they heard a large orchestra playing what was to become known as Handel’s Water Music. The composer’s scoring was especially colourful, requiring a large woodwind presence, a sizeable string section and colourful collection of continuo instruments: the Water Music also produced the first known instance of Handel’s writing in London for two baroque horns. The joyous D major suite, from which the Alla Hornpipe is taken, was thoroughly suited to outdoor performance, with its extrovert writing for trumpets and horns.
Purcell Be welcome then, great Sir
Purcell’s twenty-four Odes and Welcome Songs contain wonderfully imaginative writing. For one movement in almost every Ode Purcell utilizes a technique which never fails: over a ground bass he writes a solo melody which is subsequently taken up by the instrumental ensemble. His Welcome Song for Charles II’s return to London in the Autumn of 1683, ‘Fly, bold rebellion’, contained one such entrancing setting, over a three-bar, walking ground bass: ‘Be welcome then, great Sir’. At the mid-point the strings enter with a ravishing ritornello of quite melting beauty.
Handel Country Dances I and II
with Rebecca Miles recorder. From Water Music (CDA66967) Alongside the regal movements of Handel’s Water Music comes a series of more gentle dances. Amongst these ‘domestic’ movements come some wonderfully inventive ideas and orchestrations. The two Country Dances are neatly contrasted: the first is light and lively, and a vehicle for Handel’s recorder player to show his virtuosity; the second never fails to bring a broad smile to the faces of players and audiences alike with its gutsy scoring of the tune for bassoons, second violins and violas, all giving their rustic best in a splendid imitation of English folk music.
Bach Erbarme dich
Bach’s St Matthew Passion was composed in 1727 and was intended for performance on Good Friday. For the past four years he had been writing his cycles of church cantatas, and his intention seems to have been to surpass everything he had written previously. For the scene which tells of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus, the crowing of the cock and the distraught disciple’s bitter weeping, Bach produced one of the greatest of all arias, ‘Erbarme dich’. The alto soloist is supported by a glorious string accompaniment and one of the most ravishing violin solos in the entire repertoire.
Purcell Overture to The summer’s absence unconcerned
The return of Charles II and the Duke of York from their annual Autumn visit to Newmarket was celebrated on 21 October 1682 and Purcell, recently appointed one of the three organists at the Chapel Royal, was commissioned to set an Ode to music—the fourth of the twenty-four Odes that he set between 1680 and his death in 1695. The opening two-section Symphony is, beneath its veneer of joyfulness, one of his most wistful, full of the delicious harmonic twists that make Purcell’s music so unique.
Handel La Réjouissance
In November 1748 bands of workmen began to erect an enormous wooden structure in London’s Green Park. It was to be the basis of an enormous fireworks display which would celebrate the signing of a treaty bringing to an end the War of the Austrian Succession. Handel was commissioned to supply suitable music. The King demanded that only military instruments should play, and Handel responded by writing for a gigantic wind band, to contain no fewer than twenty-four oboes, twelve In November 1748 bands of workmen began to erect an enormous wooden structure in London’s Green Park. It was to be the basis of an enormous fireworks display which would celebrate the signing of a treaty bringing to an end the War of the Austrian Succession. Handel was commissioned to supply suitable music. The King demanded that only military instruments should play, and Handel responded by writing for a gigantic wind band, to contain no fewer than twenty-four oboes, twelve bassoons, nine trumpets, nine horns and a massive array of percussion instruments. He could hardly have produced for the eighteenth-century ear and eye a more splendid way of expressing a nation’s rejoicing!
Gabrieli Salvator noster
Gabrieli’s large-scale setting of the Christmas text Salvator noster is one of his most sumptuous motets, and may well have been performed in St Mark’s, Venice, on Christmas Day. Set for three five-part choirs of voices and instruments and an independent continuo line, it was first published in 1615. Rich, mediterranean textures predominate, amongst which are interspersed dancing, triple-metre sections. The closing Alleluia builds to a magnificent climax and the motet ends in a blaze of sound.
Bach Dona nobis pacem
Bach’s final architectural block in his Mass in B minor repeats the choral fugue ‘Gratias agimus’ from the Gloria, itself a reworking of the first chorus of Cantata BWV29 (1731). Originally the text was ‘Wir danken dir, Gott, und verkündigen deine Wunder’ (‘We thank thee God and proclaim thy wonders’): now, closing this massive work—one of the great pillars of western music—it is transformed into a powerful prayer for peace. Here, as elsewhere in the Mass, Bach’s writing is magnificently uplifting. The movement starts as a simple prayer, which builds through a series of entries to the final gesture of trumpets, symbolic of heaven, soaring above all other voices and instruments.
Robert King © 1997