The story of this CD started in 2015. Opera director András Almási-Tóth asked Kornél Fekete-Kovács to take part with his jazz quintet in the Fairy Queen, which was to be produced in the Hungarian State Opera House in 2016. Based on Henry Purcell's (1659–1695) piece of the same name, it treats the original freely: the substantially reworked plot was set in America in the 1940s, a framework into which jazz interludes based on Purcell's themes fit perfectly. Although they were only a few minutes long, they held the promise of an entire album of music, which - lo and behold - we now have. But how does this music relate to Purcell? The same way the Hungarian State Opera's production relates to Purcell's original piece. Or Purcell's original piece to the Shakespeare drama he based it on: A Midsummer Night's Dream. A relationship which is distant, yet intimate.
The original work by Purcell is a strange genre, now practically impossible to perform. In the twentieth century the term "semi-opera" gained currency: it refers to the seventeenth-century stage works including the 1692 The Fairy Queen, which at the time was known as a "drammatick opera". The essence of this is that the vocal and musical parts are dramaturgically separate from the prose parts. To put things simply, the plot itself progresses in the spoken parts, as in a "normal" play, but at the end of the acts there are musical numbers loosely related to the story, containing dance movements, instrumental pieces, choruses and vocal solo numbers. This strange, hybrid genre derives from a very simple and practical principal: because a good many actors cannot sing, and singers are mostly terrible actors (apologies to the exceptions), the "drammatick opera" provides an all-round experience for both music lovers and theatregoers: plot is acted out by excellent actors, and the end-of-act musical interludes enable the entire public to enjoy even the most exalted musical moments.
This all means that the work we know as Purcell's Fairy Queen was actually the musical interludes of the five acts of a large-scale production, which was not held together by any dramaturgy: they are entertainment pure and simple, and of the highest standard, to boot. This is why András Almási-Tóth's production could treat the plot freely, and why Purcell's musical ideas suffer no harm by being torn from their original context. After all, there was no original context to speak of. Jazz, of course, is a different world to English Baroque music of the end of the seventeenth century, yet the similarities between these two universes are many, which is why passage to and fro between them is surprisingly smooth.
What links Purcell and 1940s bebop, the style of music that serves as the basis for this CD? To begin with, improvisation and the verve and tension arising from it. In Purcell's time there were few musical events that would not have contained improvised moments, and likewise the jazz music of Charlie Parker's time gains its energy from the way that pre-written (or at least pre-thought) musical events take shape through improvisation in the performance. Then there is the constant rhythmic impulse of both Baroque music and jazz, the "drive" which so distinguishes both musical styles from the more pliable, "gooier" concept of time that Romantic music works with. Another link between them is dance, which lurks behind even the most abstract Baroque music, just as even the most abstract jazz improvisation is unable to entirely shrug off the fact that the source of jazz lies close to dance.
The nine movements on this CD are faithful to Purcell's music in varying degrees. With one exception all of them are based on some movement of the Fairy Queen (the closing chaconne is from another "drammatick opera", King Arthur of 1691), but while some quote the original musical material with note-perfect fidelity (such as the Fourth Act Tune, or Hark the Ech'ing Air), other numbers treat Purcell's model more freely. Some movements use only the melody, at other times a Baroque chord progression can be discerned in the background (albeit in a more colourful form), but in either case the inspiration comes from Purcell, who with Mozartian genius poured forth masterworks and enchanting melodies, which even in the modern sense of the word could be called "hits". Perhaps the most surprising experience for the listener of this disc might be how naturally the musical ideas of the late seventeenth century find their way into the jazz style of the mid-twentieth century. How Purcell's genius is far from being trapped in a cage of Baroque music. After all, like all great composers, he is our contemporary, like Kornél Fekete-Kovács and his wonderful fellow musicians, to whom we cannot be sufficiently grateful for breaking down the barriers of time and style between musical eras and cultures.
Fekete-Kovács Quintet - THE FAIRY QUEEN (2018)
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