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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]

After his stonkingly successful King Arthur, it was only natural that Paul McCreesh would turn to Purcell’s other semi-opera for the next part of his Gabrieli/Signum eries, and he makes it every bit as much of a triumph.

The Fairy Queen is one of that very specific set of works that come from the time when sung-through opera was treated with great suspicion in Britain, and so it’s something of a museum piece, almost unique in the genre, alongside King Arthur. The chief merit of this set is that it lifts it high above the level of a historical artefact and, as far as is possible with this genre, turns it into a piece of musical drama. It’s typical of this series’ commitment to presentation that it contains a whole series of booklet essays which address the work’s historical context, as well as the problems of putting together a performing version for today, and it’s very refreshing to read the views of several performers as they give their perspective on their part in the performance.

It’s a part of this set’s success, but it also speaks of something bigger: the sense of this being a collective achievement. Each individual component - the playing, the singing, the direction - is worthy of praise, but it comes together to produce much more than the sum of its parts. There is a definite feeling of this recording as a performance, not just something put together in the sterility of a studio environment, and so it lives and breathes brilliantly as a piece of entertainment.

The orchestra, for one thing, do a great job of bringing Purcell’s sound world to life. Their sound is, on the whole, rather light, giving the sound an agility that fits the context very well. The strings are particularly vigorous, something you sense right from the opening suite of dances, but they’re backed up by splendid trumpets which add a touch of majesty. When called upon to provide natural effects, they do so delightfully, nowhere more so than the delicious evocation of birds in Act 2, followed swiftly by the most soporific recorders you could imagine to woo Titania to sleep. The multi-faceted “Symphony” that opens Act 4 is a showcase of what they can do, and they acquit themselves wonderfully, complete with regal trumpets and drums. Throughout, the Gabrieli players form the backbone of the performance, providing a veritable kaleidoscope of instrumental colours, and McCreesh’s direction is the driving force behind their excellence. Gabrieli have been performing this music for a quarter-century: it’s clearly close to their heart, and this performing edition must have been a labour of love for McCreesh. The fact that you could say this about all of his Signum releases does not diminish the achievement. He revels in the diversity of what’s on offer, directing each number with equal care, and showing himself to be the absolute master of the treasure box he has opened.

A glance at the list of singers will reveal a list of some of the finest British soloists currently at work, speaking of both the quality of the individuals and McCreesh’s capacity to bind them together as a team. Any one of the sopranos could pack out a hall on their own, never mind together. Carolyn Sampson is both alluring and slightly threatening as the character of Night, later becoming a truly airborne nymph, and singing gorgeously in her plaint “O let me weep.” Anna Dennis is a darkly different soprano as the other allegorical character of Mystery, and she is ideally cast as an imperious Juno.Rowan Pierce utterly delightful in the fairies’ dance of Act 2, and Mhairi Lawson is commanding as the nymph of Act 3.

The men are excellent, too. Nobody works harder than Ashley Riches, who has to inhabit a huge range of characters, from the commanding allegorical figures of Winter and Sleep, to the Drunken Poet, with whom Riches clearly has a lot of fun. James Way’s deliciously sweet tenor is lovely to hear, as is the honeyed tenor of Jeremy Budd. Charles Daniels displays his comic chops effectively in the Act 3 entertainment, and Roderick Williams’ warm baritone makes him a commanding god of marriage in the final scenes. The chorus, who have to play a huge range of parts in this work, sound excellent throughout, particularly in the splendour of the Act 4 masque.

There’ll always be something a little odd about sitting down and listening to a piece like The Fairy Queen from start to finish with the libretto in front of you: so much of the action takes place in the spoken text, which is not recorded here, that you’ll only ever get the gist of the action and so it’s difficult to get swept up in the plot the way you would do in Mozart or Puccini, or even in Purcell’s own Dido. However, McCreesh sets before us a lovely box of jewels in which we can lose ourselves, holding each of Purcell’s gems up to the light and marvelling at the effects it produces.

McCreesh’s Signum/Gabrieli releases are turning into the most reliably recommendable series in the classical music world of today. It’s hardly surprising for me to say that this is warmly recommended.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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