Purcell: Dido and Aeneas; King Arthur (excerpts); Songs; Organ Works (including music by Blow & Locke); Anthems; Chamber Music

COMPOSERS: Purcell
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Dido and Aeneas; King Arthur (excerpts); Songs; Organ Works (including music by Blow & Locke); Anthems; Chamber Music
PERFORMER: Les Arts Florissants/William Christie; Alfred Deller (countertenor); Deller Consort & Choir/Alfred Deller; John Butt (organ); London Baroque; Collegium Vocale/Philippe Herreweghe
CATALOGUE NO: HMX 2901528/33 ADD/DDD (1978-94)
John Eliot Gardiner’s Purcell recordings for Erato, issued between 1977 and 1988, have been widely acclaimed and exhibit all his usual strengths: a convincing performing style, polished instrumental and vocal contributions, and a natural way with the music; and though they’ve since had to face stiff competition from the likes of Christie, Pinnock, Hogwood and King, they continue to give pleasure. Yet listening to these eight discs in succession one sometimes feels that Purcell’s genius is being under-represented, his emotional and stylistic diversity — earthy one moment, refined the next – contained.

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For instance, one only has to compare Gardiner’s otherwise exemplary fGng Arthur] with Alfred Deller’s account, about half of which is included in Harmonia Mundi’s ‘Purcell Companion*. Although recorded in 1978, nearly three years after Gardiner’s earliest Purcell disc for Erato, Deller’s version, with its massed choir and orchestra (admittedly of period instruments) and more leisurely tempi, belongs firmly to the previous generation of Purcell interpretation, one less encumbered by scholarly rectitude than the need to bring to the music a sense of occasion: what for Gardiner is an immaculately groomed succession of party-pieces becomes for Deller an irresistible journey of renewal and discovery, propelled by an inexorable narrative thrust. The result may be more uneven, but the music is brought viscerally alive.

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If none of the other discs in the Harmonia Mundi box communicate quite as vividly, none can be accused of blandness or triviality: a tightly focused Dido ‘it lafrancaise’ from Les Arts Florissants, an austere Funeral Music horn Collegium Vocale, a lively selection of miscellaneous chamber music from London Baroque, an inimitable solo countertenor recital from Alfred Deller, and a sparkling disc of organ music by Purcell, Blow and Locke from John Butt. At budget price, no one — diehard Purcellian or otherwise – need hesitate. Antony Bye