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Purcell fantazias BIS2583
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Henry PURCELL (1659-95)
Complete Fantasias and In Nomines, Z. 732-747
Rondeau and Chaconne from The Fairy Queen
Two in one upon a Ground from Dioclesian
Chacony in G minor
Chelys Consort of Viols
rec. 14-16 August 2019, Girton College Chapel, Cambridge
BIS SACD BIS-2583 [62:38]

My reference for comparison with this new recording is the venerable, vintage and pioneering recording by Harnoncourt with viols from the Concentus Musicus Wien made in way back in 1962 – so almost sixty years old and chosen because I thought it might provide an interesting contrast and perspective on the development of period practice over so long a time.

The Chelys Consort here presents all thirteen of the Fantasias, the two In Nomines and the Chacony in G minor - all of which are found on the Archiv disc, but the latter being played by Pinnock and the ECO - plus the incomplete Z. 744, of which only a minute’s music remains and three excerpts from stage works: two from The Fairy Queen and one from Dioclesian – hence this collection could hardly be more “complete”.

The problem with these masterworks is that they are often very similar in mood and content, so playing them all in one sitting is probably not advisable – although the bonus items provide greater variety.

I began randomly with a comparison of the “Fantasia upon One Note for 5 Viols”. Timings of the two versions are identical – indeed they are similar throughout, although occasionally, as in the Chacony in G minor, the Chelys are noticeably swifter - but obviously BIS’ digital sound trumps the old Archiv issue, being devoid of hiss and much more immediate, and it is striking how that reveals the depth, bite and grunt of the Chelys’ instruments. Having said that, despite the recordings being so far apart chronologically, I would not say that the sonic and interpretative differences between them are so very marked as to merit much comment; it seems that Harnoncourt and Pinnock were prescient in their direction and scholarship and very much in the vanguard of modern performance practice of music of this period.

I especially enjoy the tunes and rich textures of the two “In Nomine” works for six and seven viols respectively, which satisfyingly bookend this new recital. There is decidedly more dynamic variety in the Chelys’ versions, their legato is more apparent and their approach to phrasing is slightly more “Romantic”, whereas Harnoncourt is more “classical” and austere and sometimes clips phrases. Perhaps over the years we have come to appreciate that more crossover is permissible between supposedly rigid period styles – but again, the differences here are by no means stark.

The aforementioned Chacony stands out in the earlier album as stylistically distinct from the rest of the pieces on it, especially as Pinnock is directing from a harpsichord, whereas the Chelys Consort provides a leaner, faster, more intimate account, having adapted it for viol consort rather than the instrumentation of Pinnock’s grander English Concert. The extra items add interest and variety to the BIS recital, two of them being extracted from stage works and being generally of a more cheerful nature than the contemplative Fantasias, whereas the “Two in one upon a Ground” from Dioclesian conforms to the prevailingly grave and sombre mood. A further point of interest is the inclusion of the incomplete Z. 744, a livelier piece than many of its fellows.

The slim, cardboard digipack is attractively presented. Informative and thought-provoking notes translated into German and French, written by Ibrahim Aziz, the leader of the group, are provided in the booklet, presenting the historical and musical context of the works and discussing the many unanswered questions surrounding them - which will probably remain unanswerable.

While I would not advocate jettisoning the vintage Archiv recording, this new BIS issue offers many advantages: superior sound, more comprehensive contents, three bonuses, the incomplete Fantasia and a more relaxed performance manner. Devotees of Purcell’s oeuvre need not hesitate.

Ralph Moore

Ibrahim Aziz (treble viol); Alison Kinder (treble & alto viols); Kate Conway & Sam Stadlen (tenor and bass viols); Jennifer Bullock (bass viol) with Emily Ashton & Harry Buckoke (tenor viols)

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