LABELS: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
PERFORMER: Jennifer Smith, Christine Brandes, David Daniels, Jamie MacDougall; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale/Nicholas McGegan
CATALOGUE NO: 75605 513142
Thomas Arne composed Alfred in 1740. Initially presented as a masque intended to flatter the Anglophile Frederick, Prince of Wales (who would die an appropriately English death, struck on the head by a cricket ball!), Alfred was later revised, expanded and retitled an opera. Nicholas McGegan has based his recording on the score published in 1753, although he’s omitted a handful of musical items (plus all spoken dialogue), presumably to fit the work onto a single CD.
Alfred is chiefly remembered today for its closing ode, ‘Rule Britannia’, originally a more bouncy, breezy affair than the ponderous warhouse beloved of contemporary jingoists. Purcell’s King Arthur may have been a model for Alfred’s nationalistic mythologising (the libretto, by David Mallet and James Thomson, which recounts Alfred’s victory over invading Danes, is more invention than history), but McGegan’s claim that Arne bears comparison with Purcell and even Handel appears unduly hyperbolic. The music here is skilful, versatile, with a pleasing facility, but rarely is it moving or very memorable. (Arne’s later opera Artaxerxes, available on Hyperion, would make a more plausible case.) I can’t fault McGegan’s soloists but the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra seem short on dramatic nous; their playing is neat, polished yet often rather bland. Graham Lock