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Six Wives of Henry VIII Live (DVD)
Artist:  Rick Wakeman (& others)
Label:  Eagle Rock Entertainment
Time:  12 Tracks / 125 mins + bonus features.

Artists are bound to be most excited by what they are working on at any given moment, but I believe Rick Wakeman when he says that this is the best musical event of his life; at least it must top his solo career.

Hampton Court declined Wakeman’s 1973 request to perform The Six Wives of Henry VIII at the palace which Henry transformed, but nearly four decades later, new management asked him to put on the spectacle to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry’s accession to the throne. Fans have consistently rated this as Wakeman’s best work, and it turns out that the 36-minute opus that we all know was only a fraction of what it was supposed to be. Even the name changed, due to the shortage of music capacity on vinyl: the album should have been called Henry VIII and his Six Wives , with a central track about the king himself, called “Defender of the Faith.” 

The original was always a mixed affair. Although it rang with great, memorable themes that have deservedly kept their appeal for so long, they felt too bitty to truly satisfy. These complete pieces are a revelation. For Wakeman fans to finally hear this version is like astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovering Pluto and knowing a fuller solar system than ever before. Technology and budget have combined to allow a set that goes beyond compositional completeness, with a far wider sound, expanded by Orchestra Europa and The English Chamber Choir. So in “Catherine of Aragon” piccolo takes the top end to counter the super-low, buzzy mini-Moog section, and orchestra builds up the theme of Kathryn Howard, helping the piece to regain its proper proportions. The choir’s genuine vocals beat Mellotron to add dignity to the pipe organ sound of “Jane Seymour” (although, for logistical reasons, it cannot be a real pipe organ that sits high above the stage and is invisibly replaced with a grand piano later). Most of the central tracks now reach ten or twelve minutes, so Katherine Parr’s percussion-heavy jam is now fully rounded; and Wakeman uses a Korg on “Ann of Cleves” to get a fresher, lighter and more fluid synth sound. 

New material is generally well worth waiting for. The opening fanfare is purely functional and the first proper track, “Tudorture 1485” is too heavily arpeggiated for my liking, but the central “Defender of the Faith” has the same weight as any other track. Its vibrant energy and funkiness suit the king well. After the main show, Wakeman and son Adam both wear portable keyboards to duet on “Tudorock 1485,” a work that incorporates elements of the main pieces.

Opinion will be heavily polarized as to how well narrator Brian Blessed performs. With tatty A4 in hand, and dressed like he’s been caught out by a surprise party, his booming presence and comic ad-libs join the sections in a style perfectly suited to Wakeman’s characteristic humour and excess (although you might not enjoy it if you’re French).

The extras are loose and not very informative, but the sound and vision are strong. Occasionally, the lighting doesn’t quite know what to do and so flies all over the stage without reference to the music, but there are plenty of close ups in the right places and the lit frame that borders the view of Hampton Court Palace is highly effective.

This work could hardly have been re-imagined in a better form. The narrator-less CD version will appeal to many, and will have lost nothing of great worth, but for Yes and Wakeman fans some format of this extravaganza is truly essential.

Derek Walker


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