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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
The Fairy Queen. Semi-Opera in Five Acts (1692)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Andrew Carwood (tenor)
Michael Bundy (bass)
Gillian Keith (soprano 1)
Rebecca Outram (soprano 2)
William Towers (counter-tenor)
Robert Murray (tenor)
New English Voices
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
Recorded at Teatro Rossini, Lugo di Romagna, Ravenna, July 2001
ARTS 47679-2 [65.19 + 67.07]


Recorded live before a very quiet audience – we really only hear them as they applaud at the end – this is an Anglo-Italian production that fuses the original instrument band Accademia Bizantina with some prominent British soloists. The results, whatever slight reservations there may be, are consistently enjoyable. The band under Ottavio Dantone shape their lines with vigour and colour. The Rondeau from the Second Music of the First Act is a particular example of a general rule. Their decorations have been well thought through. There’s an earthiness and sense of theatrical engagement that are vital for full appreciation of Purcell’s semi-opera.

There is much to admire: the Drunken Poet scene where the band anticipates Michael Bundy’s drunk in the strings’ shudder, or else the arch lute’s role in Act II’s Come, all ye songsters. But it’s probably in moments such as the Interlude from Act II where we really get the full measure of the band’s vivacity – two solo fiddles, fluttering, employing a fine array of tasteful and stylistically apposite ornaments and trills. The brass manage the Echo scene well whilst the percussion is crisp. Stand-out soprano Carolyn Sampson meanwhile does her burgeoning career no harm in this 2001 recording – colouring softly with perfect understanding in her Act III aria Ye Gentle Spirits of the Air and rising to the heights with her great plaint O let me ever, ever weep in the Fifth Act.

Anthony Carwood is a pleasing choice for tenor soloist; highly experienced of course in this kind of repertoire he brings a fine, light, lyric tenor to his role, and gives See my many colour’d fields a really good and felicitous kick. We also have some luxury casting in Soprano I, Gillian Keith, who takes her small roles with elegance and tonal beauty – as well as Rebecca Outram. As ever, supporting them, the band proves to be well conversant with pictorialism and energising rhythm. The Chorus, the New English Voices, sound very well rehearsed; sectional discipline is tight but generous. Above all, the character and humour of the semi-opera are brought out quite unselfconsciously and with real affection. It’s a most attractive set. The competition of course is strong. Gardiner (from 1987) is still a front-runner; Harnoncourt (Teldec) has Sylvia McNair whilst Harry Christophers (Coro) has the hilarious, chart-topping duo of Michael Chance and Michael George. Each set has some special virtue and if my choice is Gardiner it’s a very close-run thing. Christophers will do just as well though McNair is very special. But this entrant has strong and lasting virtues of its own and is recommended on merit.

Jonathan Woolf

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