Purcell The Fairy Queen

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Purcell The Fairy Queen

  • (The) Fairy Queen

The Fairy Queen is arguably Purcell's most colourful score and the one which reveals the composer at his most considered in terms of pure elan As Curtis Price reminds us in his note, Purcell benefited from a long run-up to the first production which thus gave him greater time to exhibit the full extent of his wares. Those wares have, since Purcell's death in 1695 (lest we shall ever be allowed to forget after this year), caused the theatre manager, scholar and performer a prolonged headache. The Theatre Royal lost the score in the late 1690s only for that or a similar one to (re)appear at the Royal Academy of Music 200 years later.
With copious changes made over the period of dovetailing productions from May 1692 to around the time of Purcell's death, remaining sources are too hopelessly contradictory to form a clear understanding of the composer's definitive wishes, if indeed he had any. I am sure he realized, as we do, that semi-opera was not, except in the most localized way, a dramatic medium; the music after all is little more than tangential to the narrative of the play. Despite that, Purcell's music for the masques in all five acts has a self-contained wonder all of its own, highly evocative of the magical and supernatural which originates, if seriously diluted, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Of course, the music still has to make sense quasi-dramatically and as modern recordings have shown, by presenting the music complete without the spoken play, this is surprisingly easy to achieve.
Roger Norrington clearly identifies with Purcell's refined characterization as demonstrated in his performance of the work at The South Bank's ''Purcell Experience'' in autumn 1993. There is a great sense throughout the recording, made shortly afterwards, that each gesture in the music has been thoroughly absorbed and filtered. This makes for an extraordinarily tidy, persuasively articulated and lean account: the instrumental dances contain a textural luminosity which is at times revelatory and the attention to detail gives the marvellously fleeting nuance of Purcell's part-writing the chance to be noticed; no one has produced such a mesmerically crafted evocation in ''A Dance for the Followers'' of Oberon sprinkling magic flower juice into Titania's eyes.
Part of Norrington's success lies in his eloquent feel for tempos. The opening instrumental numbers are unhurried, some, like the attractive Rondeau, are shaped in an unusually cultivated manner with subtle accentuations in otherwise seamless melodic phrasing. This care in the instrumental music, most captivatingly employed in a stately reading of the superb Act 4 Overture, is equally applicable to the vocal numbers which boast a skilfully chosen array of singers, each of whom evidently suits Norrington's highly focused view of the music. Unlike Harry Christophers's if not more celebrated then more recognizably diverse group of soloists, we have here an easy and pleasing contrast between different voices which is best exemplified in the series of numbers before the end of Act 2, culminating in Richard Wistreich's comforting and soft-grained allegory, Sleep. The other bass, David Wilson-Johnson, is a splendid drunken poet, though arguably retaining too much self-respect at the end. He excels too in the deeply moving ''Now Winter comes slowly''. Mark Padmore and Howard Crook are cut from the same cloth in many respects, both capable of perfuming a text in a light and agile way and together they blend effortlessly in ''Let the fifes''. Lorraine Hunt, whom I have not heard sing Purcell other than Dido, is a convincing and authoritative foil to Catherine Pierard and Susan Bickley, each of whom seems to grow in stature as the work progresses. Hunt sings an impassioned Plaint with a mellowness and control which one recalls from her finest Handel recordings.
Although I admire Norrington's finely wrought view of this masterpiece, there is a prevailing calculation about proceedings which will concern those who prefer their Purcell sounding fresh from the road. Christie's version certainly has a flavour for the mustiness of the Restoration pit (though transported rather too obviously Paris-wards for some people's taste) following a full-blown production. In short, Norrington's performance is 'state of the art' Purcell and the price for such intricate and poised expression is that the whole feels rather studio-made, each scene a graceful vignette of layered perceptions. On a less fundamental level, the keen edge of his vision denies a more yielding approach at some moments. The wonderfully evocative pedal on ''Let 'em sleep'' in Act 1 is disappointingly hurried, the opening of Act 2 is not quite as evocative as it might have been and the equivalent place in Act 3 is a touch undernourished compared with both Gardiner's and Christophers's versions.
For all that, this is a splendid achievement. It is not for me, a clear favourite as such because each of tie other three has angles on this delicious score which I would not want to be without. Norrington adds to these other distinguished accounts with the most aristocratic and refined account to date. Fine recorded sound.

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