Purcell’s The Fairy Queen is a difficult work to categorise. Neither a full-scale opera like Dido and Aeneas, nor incidental music to one of the many theatrical productions for which Purcell provided music , it is usually given the uneasy designation of ‘semi-opera’. The fact that its form derives from obsolete masques that were so popular at the Stuart courts either side of the Civil War, and its free and easy tinkering with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, also make it a rarity on stage.
Yet the two hours of music that Purcell wrote for the poetic, theatrical and dance extravaganza which opened in London in 1692 and was revived the following year is sublime. More mature and sophisticated than Dido, it thoroughly absorbs French and Italian influences and points to what could have been, had Purcell lived, a distinctive brand of English opera.
This recording is not new. It dates from 1995 and comes from a live performance at the Vienna Musikverein, presumably commemorating the tercentenary of Purcell’s death. Re-released in 2009, it now marks 350 years since the composer’s birth, and also celebrates 50 years of the Das Alte Werk label (now under Warner).
The sound quality is excellent – clear, warm and well balanced. However, it is frequently disturbed by coughing and shuffling from the Vienna audience. This is particularly irksome in some of the quieter passages. Concentus Musicus Vienna play extremely well on period instruments, although the orchestra is considerably larger than that which would have played the music in Purcell’s day. The strings in particular are too top-heavy, with 12 violins and four violas muddying over some of the woodwind parts.
The singers are well balanced and versatile enough to take on various sung roles. Only Barbara Bonney sounds a little out of place. Her powerful soprano voice sounds held back, as if she would rather be belting out Mozart or Strauss (for example on CD 1, track 19). On the plus side, Sylvia McNair is ideally suited to Purcell, with a playful and light tone. Her crystal clear and expressive voice during the plaint ‘O let me ever, ever, weep’ (CD 2, track 7) is a high point. The whole of Act IV on the second CD is a real treat, with its mix of ‘operatic’ solos, choruses and orchestral interludes.
Throughout the recording the Arnold Schoenberg Choir provide sterling support, singing the chorus parts with subtlety and feeling, and proving responsive to the ‘English’ musical style and diction. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directs the Concentus Musicus with slightly fast but appealing tempi, picking out the catchy rhythms of Purcell’s stirring music.
Subtlety and feeling … see Full Review