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Just the masques and incidental music that Purcell and Thomas Betterton added to the latter’s reworking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last for 139 minutes (in this set) so the full event must have tested audience endurance as they sat on the unpadded benches of the Dorset Garden Theatre stalls in 1692. It was an expensive experience too, not surprising when Betterton’s PR machine was boasting of having spent £3000 on the production. This was the last of the partnership’s ventures into semi-opera, following the success with John Dryden of Dioclesian and King Arthur. It is also the most decorous, perhaps reflecting the increasingly conservative mood of London under William III after the heady days of Charles II’s court 15 years earlier. There’s plenty of room for bawdy slapstick in the play from Bottom and his chums, of course, but in the Purcell sections there is none of the naughtiness of his glees and catches. The most daring scenes involve only a moderately inebriated poet and vignette between the stock couple of lewd lovers Coridon and Mopsa, here sung in panto style by a pair of high tenors.

Nonetheless, in purely musical terms The Fairy Queen has some of Purcell’s most exquisite pieces. In this recording two of them, See, even Night herself is here and the Plaint , Oh let me weep, are given to Carolyn Sampson whose tone, accuracy and diction are surely unmatched. There are other wonders – Ashley Riches as Sleep, Anna Dennis in If Love’s a Passion, and the company in the 18-minute masque that is Purcell’s version of the Four Seasons. Generally the experienced soloists like Sampson and Charles Daniels are well integrated with newer voices like Rowan Pierce and James Way.

The instrumental playing is truly fabulous, whether alone or accompanying the singers. By having an equal consort of violins, three to a part, down to bass violins (not cellos) the balance is never too sparse or too heavy. Twelve singers are matched by twelve string players. Neither does McCreesh overload the continuo as some modern French groups do: just harpsichord, lute and guitar. The oboe (Christopher Palameta and Hannah McLaughlin) and trumpet (Jean-Francois Madeuf and Graham Nicholson) parts are performed with a perfect mixture of panache and attention to detail.

If there is a quibble (and only a quibble) it is that the tempi in some of the instrumental numbers are sometimes a little steady, perhaps too careful. This is clearly meant to be the culmination of all the Gabrieli Consort and Players’ work on the score over decades, evidenced by the impressive articles in the booklet. They do themselves and Purcell full justice. This recording is a joy.

Simon Mundy Read the full review on Agora Classica

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