Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

LABELS: Teldec Das Alte Werk
WORKS: The Fairy Queen
PERFORMER: Barbara Bonney, Sylvia McNair, Elisabeth von Magnus, Michael Chance, Laurence Dale; Arnold Schönberg Choir, Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: 4509-97684-2 DDD
Of all spin-offs from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, surely the most curious is the Restoration spectacle of 1692 for which Purcell provided two hours of splendid music without setting a single line of Shakespeare. The Fairy Queen was gorgeously captured on Gardiner’s recording of 1982, but I had lively expectations of Harnoncourt’s approach.


As with Elgar, Purcell is belittled by any supposition that only the Brits can enter his world. Harnoncourt’s Viennese chorus tackles the language decently, supporting a largely British-American cast. The disappointment lies in the interpretation itself, so often heavy, so lacking in flow. How can ‘Sing while we trip-trip it upon the green’ be paced so slowly? How can the ceremonial ‘Symphony while the swans come forward’ be made so spineless? Moreover the sound-recording itself is congested and, though not advertised as ‘live’, is not without extraneous noise.


There is some distinguished singing here, as in Barbara Bonney’s ‘Hark, the echoing air’ and the mock-military duetting of Laurence Dale and Michael Chance in ‘Let the fifes and the clarions’. But for both style and sound, Gardiner’s recording on Archiv (18 minutes longer, partly because he does not make Harnoncourt’s cuts) remains the one to have. Arthur Jacobs