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 Favourites, Henry Purcell

Henry PurcellPurcell is often named as the most significant British-born composer until Elgar, and it's not hard to see why. Synthesising various elements from the different Baroque traditions that existed around Europe in his day, he forged his own unique, instantly recognisable style of composition and produced numerous works that have remained firm favourites to this day.

As with many composers of 'early' music, recordings of Purcell fall broadly into two categories – 'period' performances which attempt to replicate authentic instruments and techniques, and freer interpretations which place less emphasis on this approach (often from longer ago, when the desire for authenticism was less paramount). The selection below perhaps leans a little towards the former camp – but there's no denying that some of the finest performances on disc are unabashedly 'inauthentic'!

Stage Works

The tragedy Dido and Aeneas is probably Purcell’s best-known work: written for performance by the pupils of a girls’ school, it has become one of the most beloved Baroque operas in the repertoire. This performance, recorded live from the Royal Opera House in 2009, won plaudits for both the calibre of the singing (with a great line-up of soloists including Sarah Connolly, Lucy Crowe and Iestyn Davies) and the innovative yet simple staging.

Available Format: DVD Video

The tragedy Dido and Aeneas is probably Purcell’s best-known work: written for performance by the pupils of a girls’ school, it has become one of the most beloved Baroque operas in the repertoire. This performance, recorded live from the Royal Opera House in 2009, won plaudits for both the calibre of the singing (with a great line-up of soloists including Sarah Connolly, Lucy Crowe and Iestyn Davies) and the innovative yet simple staging.

Available Format: Blu-ray

This is an unashamedly 'old-school' performance from 1962; the strings in the overture are almost Romantically luxurious, and there’s more vibrato than might be expected today from the soloists – not least Janet Baker herself in the title role – but for all its 'sins' against authenticism, it remains one of the most convincing and dramatic accounts on disc.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

King Arthur is a glorious piece of Restoration propaganda that uses King Arthur’s victory over the pagan Saxons as an allegory for Britain’s increasing power and prosperity. The cast is large and fantastical (including a shivering personification of Winter and a gang of drunken farmers) and with such a rich vein of character to mine, performances often risk descending into caricature - but Hervé Niquet’s account with Le Concert Spirituel treads that often tricky line perfectly.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

An adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Fairy Queen is a semi-operatic work that falls, like King Arthur, into the "Restoration spectacular" genre - works with a heavy reliance on special effects and lavish scenery, mostly staged in London in the late 17th Century. Purcell set some of the scenes to music (though in common with the style, the major characters such as Titania and Oberon are not themselves sung). John Eliot Gardiner's experienced touch draws a light and witty performance from the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

This multi-award-winning production of The Fairy Queen perfectly blends the spoken and the sung elements into an engaging and witty whole that must surely be close, in spirit if not in details, to how the work would originally have been experienced. Both the actors and the singers excel, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightement's playing under William Christie is masterful. It's easy to see why this disc's trophy cabinet is so full.

Available Format: 2 DVD Videos

This multi-award-winning production of The Fairy Queen perfectly blends the spoken and the sung elements into an engaging and witty whole that must surely be close, in spirit if not in details, to how the work would originally have been experienced. Both the actors and the singers excel, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightement's playing under William Christie is masterful. It's easy to see why this disc's trophy cabinet is so full.

Available Format: Blu-ray

It was common in Purcell’s time for composers to write suites of incidental music to plays – pieces that would break up the spoken action. This disc contains Purcell's incidental music to five plays (including Abdelazer, which features the Rondeau made famous as the theme for Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra). In this recording, narrations by John Holloway between the musical numbers help to give a flavour of the original plays.

Available Format: 2 CDs

Choral & Vocal Works

Purcell wrote a large quantity of solo vocal numbers – both standalone works such as the Evening Hymn and excerpts from larger works that have become popular in their own right, such as Music for a while (originally from Act III of Oedipus). Andreas Scholl is one of the finest living countertenors, and here he presents a delightful survey of Purcell’s vocal works, including those just mentioned.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Sacred choral music accounts for a large proportion of Purcell's output and three anthems in particular have entered the repertoire: Hear my prayer, O Lord, the Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary – sung at the composer’s own funeral – and the light-footed Rejoice in the Lord alway (The Bell Anthem). Jeremy Summerly’s Oxford Camerata presents an eloquent overview here, with adult female sopranos adding a pleasing astringency on the top line.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

The bright-toned trebles of New College, Oxford (caught here in 1995) include several singers who have gone onto significant careers in early music and opera, and director Edward Higginbottom is a consummate Purcell interpreter: the music is neither ploddingly slow nor unduly rushed, and the composer's harmonic gifts are displayed effectively and sensitively.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Chamber Works

Purcell composed a huge volume of 'domestic' music, written (as is so often the case with music of this period) with the talented amateur in mind. Talented he undoubtedly is, but Richard Egarr is certainly no amateur – bringing intelligent and sensitive phrasing to the eight harpsichord suites, interspersed with stand-alone ‘grounds’ (ie variations over a repeating melody in the bass part).

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC

This beautiful collection from Musica Amphion demonstrates Purcell’s masterly skill as a writer of contrapuntal chamber works – the sets of three- and four-part sonatas broke new ground in composition, and in this respect are perfectly complemented by the more retrospective style of the Fantazias, which look backward to a form that had fallen into obscurity.

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC