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Purcell: The Fairy Queen

Carolyn Sampson, Anna Dennis (soprano), et al; Gabrieli/Paul McCreesh (Signum Classics)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

The Fairy Queen
Carolyn Sampson, Anna Dennis, Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ashley Riches (bass-baritone), Roderick Williams (baritone); Gabrieli/Paul McCreesh
Signum Classics SIGCD615   139:03 mins (2 discs)

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In 1701, the full score of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen went missing. In his ‘1692’ Fairy Queen, Paul McCreesh brings together leading artists and the best scholarly minds to make good that loss. Outrageous yet ravishing, this Fairy Queencommands both love and respect.

The Fairy Queen is a series of mini-dramas inserted into A Midsummer’s Night Dream in which Purcell’s characters entertain Shakespeare’s dramatis personae. Highlights include a fairy choir interrupted by drunken poets (Act I), conjured beings – elves, nymphs, monkeys, dryads, Chinese – celebrating love (Act II, II and V), and the chariot-riding sun god Phoebus praising Oberon (Act IV). McCreesh’s production rises to the occasion: original voicing, unorthodox continuo, project-specific trumpet design and rediscovered string techniques bring out qualities missing from earlier recordings. Purcell’s hornpipes were never livelier, nor his chaconnes statelier, than in this performance.

The choir transforms on command from a lightly teasing ensemble to a thundering chorus; the impish boldness of the choral finale, heightened by tambourines, is the essence of Restoration zest. Singers’ additions, which stand out gloriously against a plucked-string-only accompaniment, cause amorous solos to ooze desire; Carolyn Sampson’s timbral purity and curvaceous diminutions are an especially heady mix. Comic numbers get full period license: the spluttering drunk poet is hilariously unmusical. At times soloists lard their solemn airs with a bit too much vibrato for my taste, but Purcell may have approved. Extremes, as McCreesh shows, belong to the fantastic worlds of The Fairy Queen.

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Berta Joncus