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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
The Fairy Queen (1692)
Anna Dennis (soprano): Mhairi Lawson (soprano): Rowan Pierce (soprano): Carolyn Sampson (soprano): Jeremy Budd (high tenor): Charles Daniels (high tenor, tenor): James Way (high tenor, tenor): Roderick Williams (baritone): Ashley Riches (bass-baritone)
Gabrieli Consort and Gabrieli Players/Paul McCreesh
Texts included
SIGNUM SIGCD615 [69:28 + 69:35]

When considering Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli’s recording of King Arthur (see review) it was clear that many years’ familiarity with the score had informed practical and historically-justified decision making. Their familiarity with The Fairy Queen has been almost as long and similar editorial and performance matters have also been addressed. The chosen pitch is A=392 Hz, once again effective for the use of high tenors, as opposed to falsettists. And once again this recording of the McCreesh-Christopher Suckling edition makes no grandiose claims to be anything like an Urtext, given the discrepancies in source material, but it does sift variants and comes to practical decision-making in the interest of dramatic intensity and narrative logic. There are other things that this ensemble does conspicuously well; the first is the employment of a French bow-hold, the second the use of all gut strings and finally non-bowed string accompaniment. This last in particular is important in the continuo group which is both flexible and varied, with theorbo, harpsichord and guitar prominent. These colouristic varieties, allied to the crisp, lighter aerated textures of the so-called French grip, impart a decidedly continental element to the music-making. Robust string sonorities are not to be encountered here; instead, all is aerial grace.

The opening music is full of well-accented and graceful flair and as the work unfolds it’s clear that its humour and charm are there to be explored. Ashley Riches is the drunken poet whose fast divisions are pinpoint accurate and who projects a character realistically scaled and not subject to buffoonery, as can sometimes be the case in more broadly drawn impersonations. Thus his ‘I’m drunk, as I live boys’ is ripe but not ridiculous. In matters pertaining to yoklery, the Act III scene for Coridon and Mopsa – Charles Daniels and Riches - is certainly a locus classicus of Mummersettery. James Way proves once again to have a youthful lyric high tenor and Carolyn Sampson fines down her tone for the nocturnal song ‘See, even Night herself is here’.

Notice also the rhythmically athletic string accompaniment to ‘Sing while we trip it’ and the light winds behind ‘One charming night’. McCreesh is not interested in speed for its own sake and he gives time, rightly, to ‘Hush, no more’. Anna Dennis has a lovely tone though if I have a criticism it’s that her diction is not ideally clear in ‘If love’s a sweet passion’. Rowan Pierce’s refined singing of ‘Thus the ever grateful spring’, over the deft harpsichord accompaniment of Jan Waterfield, is a genuine pleasure and Sampson proves worthy of the Plaint, ‘O let me weep’ where some lovely oboe playing and delicate continuo backing provides eloquent aid. It’s to Mhairi Lawson that it falls to sing one of the other highpoints, ‘Hark the echoing air’, familiar to generations of stalwart sopranos down the years, and she sings vividly and fast, with some fiery personality to boot. I’m not sure Isobel Baillie would have approved but one must move with the times.

There’s an air of generosity and joy about this recording, as well as a communicative, engaging sense of theatrical narrative that works on its own terms. Reference is made in the thorough and splendid booklet notes which is the work of several hands – and is once again festooned with black and white photographs of a ‘cow and leaf’ nature - regarding the placement of the Chaconne to end the work but that won’t come as a surprise for those who have John Eliot Gardiner’s recording. He reached this conclusion decades ago whilst those like Harry Christophers beg to differ ending with the chorus ‘They shall be as happy’.

This is an elegant, refined and strongly realised performance. Earthier alternatives exist – I’ve cited two – but if you follow McCreesh and his forces you will lack for little in polish and affect, in the truest sense.

Jonathan Woolf

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