Issue 14 :
Interview with Robert
(Director of The King's Consort)
Robert King (RK) is the founder
and director of The King’s Consort (‘TKC’), and has gained a reputation for
performing and recording less familiar Handel English oratorios. Robert’s new
Hyperion recording of Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day is probably his
last major Handel recording for the near future because, thanks to his work,
there are no longer many gaps in the discography left to fill. David Vickers (DV)
spoke to Robert in September 2004, at around the time of the Cecilia Ode’s
commercial release and The King’s Consort’s performance of Monteverdi’s 1610
Vespers at the BBC Proms.
DV: What were your first
meaningful encounters with Handel's music?
RK: When I was a boy chorister at
St John's College Cambridge we sang music from every period under the sun,
including the occasional Handel chorus. As a chorister I was hugely influenced
by George Guest, and was part of a particularly rich seam of choristers who are
now spread widely across the music business: later on Donald Paine was the
wonderful director of music at Radley - my "public" school – and he was
wonderfully supportive to me. But my main experiences in Handel didn't come
DV: Like other well known British
early music performers, you studied at Cambridge. Did you develop your interest
in directing baroque music there?
RK: As I finished my A-levels and
started at University I was finding so much good music that I wanted to perform.
When you are a student no-one is going to ask you to give a concert, so I simply
got on and organised concerts myself. These concerts proved rather popular - one
famous occasion saw more than 1000 queuing out of the College and down the road,
and resulted in my being being given a terrific dressing down by the College
authorities - for being too successful! I learned the lesson - and carried on
with added enthusiasm...
DV: What do you particularly
admire about Handel?
RK: He has such a sense of drama,
whether it is in the operas or in the oratorios. Of course, the oratorios have
the added benefit of a chorus, which I think always adds such a lot to a
performance. But I don’t have a ‘favourite’ piece because that has to be
whichever piece I'm currently performing. That way you are totally committed to
the job in hand!
DV: Your Hyperion recordings of
Handel have concentrated mostly on lesser known oratorios in English. Did that
arise from your interest in Purcell?
RK: Handel Oratorios are such good
music, and in fact we recorded them roughly in parallel with our three big
Purcell series. There wasn't any chain of one composer leading to the other. One
of The King’s Consort's earliest discs for Hyperion was Joshua, which at
the time had no decent recording at all, certainly not on period instruments.
When that sold very well, I suggested to Ted Perry at Hyperion that we should
follow it up with Judas Maccabaeus. He needed little encouragement, and
was rewarded when it sold even better than Joshua! It all started there.
DV: and then there was a premiere
recording of Deborah. Winton Dean infamously remarked that "Deborah is a
failure". What do you think of that verdict?
RK: Several critics have
written articles and books purely by looking at the scores - never actually
hearing the music, or certainly not in a decent performance. Winton Dean is
undoubtedly a great scholar, but perhaps even he would now admit that his
judgement went slightly off-centre when he was writing about Deborah.
It's not a failure – we performed it at the BBC Proms before recording it, and
the ecstatic reaction of 5000 Prommers was as good a democratic vote for Handel
as I've seen!
DV: You've recorded all Handel's
military oratorios from the mid-1740s. Do you think they all have their own
RK: Across Handel oratorios you
can often see a loose similarity in the overall framework, but then you get into
the actual music and you keep discovering new jewels. Handel constantly
surprises you! The Occasional Oratorio is certainly one of the most
heavily recycled of the oratorios, but when it's full of great tunes does that
really matter so much?
DV: Do any scenes from these
lesser known oratorios stand out for you? For example, I was amazed that in the
middle of Joseph & His Brethren there is an incredible prison scene for Simeon,
sung by John Mark Ainsley, that rivals anything Handel ever created in his
Italian operas for Senesino…
RK: That’s difficult! To form a
reliable opinion about that would require me to go back and revisit all those
hours of recordings - and take me some several weeks! When I've finished a
project - rehearsals, the concerts, recording sessions, all the post-production
of editing music and writing notes, checking proofs and so on - and when the
disc arrives, I check the first ten seconds of the pressing are right. I tend to
be so relieved that I put it on the shelf and don't take it down for years!
Nevertheless, it is interesting that when a concert performance suddenly looms
again the music is still firmly in my memory bank and comes back ever so fast.
DV: The Choice of Hercules badly
needed a good recording, and your response to this need won the International
Handel Recording Prize.
RK: This really was a case of
getting close to completing our Handel "cycle". For some years I knew there was
no decent recording of the work and I already knew several lovely arias from
it; the story was very attractive, so we just had to get all that music onto
DV: The Coronation of George II
was an elaborate project. What were your reasons for creating this
RK: The Coronation of King
George II has been a huge success for us, performed more times than any
other major TKC programme. I've always loved drama and the concept of
reconstructing an event - I love staging things, working with lighting and
movement as well as music, using spaces and making the audience feel part of an
event, so this was the perfect project. Our big Venetian reconstruction Lo
Sposalizio had been immensely successful, and I was looking for a similarly
dramatic project. A beer with my great friend Crispian Steele-Perkins at the
back of a plane found the solution: I wanted to stage a reconstruction of a
coronation, it had to be eighteenth century, preferably English, and with great
music. In 45 seconds we had both hit on the 1727 coronation as being the perfect
occasion: within two days of getting home the whole project was, in outline,
completely in place. It really was the most natural of births!
DV: You recently performed
L'Allegro at the Handel Festival in Halle. What is it like touring with a big
work like that?
RK: It's terrific. However many
Handel oratorios you perform, there's always a great frisson as you start the
overture and know there's a good couple of hours or more of great music ahead!
DV: Now you have recorded the
Cecilia Ode and the little-known cantata "Cecilia, volgi un sguardo". I guess
this marks the completion of another series, with you now having recorded all
the music Handel created to fill out Alexander’s Feast.[i]
It’s a lovely disc, and the soloists are ideal.
RK: The night before the recording
sessions began there was a huge emergency when the soprano soloist I had engaged
for the project fell ill. My great friend Carolyn Sampson stepped in at 11pm
with sessions starting the next afternoon, and effectively sang the whole
project at sight. Amazingly - or perhaps as a result - she sounds even more
wonderful and totally at ease than usual! She really is an astonishing singer
and I am especially proud of the disc. There is great singing, but also
fantastic obbligato instrumental playing, and great ensemble work.
DV: You've done copious amounts of
Vivaldi, Purcell, Handel, and now Monteverdi. Do you see yourself returning to
RK: With recordings? Just
possibly, but it is hard to predict at the moment where we can go next. But as
for concert projects, of course they will continue apace.
DV: Ottone is the only Handel
opera you recorded. Why? You performed Ezio too...
RK: Sadly, it's entirely down to
CD sales. Though projects in the opera house are very popular, Handel opera on
disc seems not often to get its money back for the company concerned: Ottone
was a dreadful loser in the shops for Hyperion. I've never dared suggest another
opera to them! We performed Ezio, and it was broadcast on BBC Radio 3,
but we never recorded it.
DV: You prepare your own practical
performance editions for Hyperion recordings. How do you go about this work, and
does it bring you closer to the music?
RK: If there are a variety of
editorial decisions to be made, it's always easiest that you make these
yourself. Then you can't disagree with the editor so much when it comes to
performance time! Of course I am lucky to be able to take good advice from
respected scholars, but after so many years recording tens of thousands of
minutes of music by Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi I know their musical styles very
well and tend to head off in the first place in the direction that my instincts
take me. It's a relief how often that gut feeling later turns out to be provable
by scholarly processes as well!
DV: You've worked with many of the
finest British singers and players who specialise in period-instrument
RK: It's nice that you mention the
players as well as those front cover soloists, because TKC is very much about
the whole team, not just individual stars. I am so fortunate to have worked with
so many great singers and instrumentalists. After so many years, we are all very
flexible in being able to return to a style, even if we haven't visited it for a
few months. Certainly Handel is very much in the blood of English period
DV: You've worked a lot with
experienced senior early music figures like James Bowman and Crispian
Steele-Perkins, as well as encouraged younger talent like Robin Blaze and
Carolyn Sampson. Is this a conscious decision?
RK: The King’s Consort has always
made an absolute priority to give really talented players and singers of the
latest generation the chance to show themselves, and to learn - and there is no
better way to learn than to stand alongside the greats. Nothing makes me happier
than to see someone who started out with great talent but little
experience gradually taking the international stage. A very few of them have
become so grand that they have forgotten how they got to where they are, but the
vast majority remain a happy and successful part of The King’s Consort's
extended musical family - even if sometimes they are so busy we can't get them
for years to come!
The King’s Consort:
The King's Consort Handel discography:
Hyperion Records Ltd.:
The International Handel Recording Prize 2003:
GFHandel.org interview with Crispian Steele-Perkins:
[i] ‘Look down, harmonious Saint’ (recorded by King with Acis & Galatea)
was composed for insertion into the original 1736 run of Alexander’s
Feast, but Handel rejected it in favour of ‘Cecilia, volgi un
sguardo’. The Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739) and The Choice
of Hercules (1751) were both composed as interludes for revials of
Alexander’s Feast, which was too short to fill an entire evening.
explicitly specified otherwise,
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August 30, 2020
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