Henry Purcell is arguably the greatest genius of the Baroque era that most people have still not heard of. To be sure, Bach is undeniably the greatest composer of the Baroque (and to many, the greatest composer in Western musical history), but Purcell can plausibly be compared with Handel and Scarlatti, the other two giants of Baroque music besides Bach. Purcell's short opera Dido and Aeneas is certainly the best opera of the latter half of the seventeenth century and the greatest English opera before Britten. Had he not died in 1695 at the early age of 35 (the same age Mozart was at his death), Purcell would surely be regarded as one of the greatest.
This recording features Henry Purcell's 1680 masterwork for viol consort, the Fantasias for Viol. Like Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, the Fantasias feature a poignant chromaticism and continuous upward modulation that heightens the emotional power of the work in a way not entirely dissimilar to the Liebestod that concludes Wagner's Tristan and Isolde (prior to its widespread adoption in the early nineteenth century, only the murderous Renaissance prince and composer Carlo Gesualdo used chromaticism as extensively as Purcell did). Yet just as they look forward in time to post-romantic chromaticism, in their use of the viol consort the Fantasias look backward in time to the English renaissance, in which such composers as Mathew Locke wrote interesting music for viol consort, though no other piece can match the sublime profundity of Purcell's work. Purcell's was moreover to be the last work for viol consort as the viol was increasingly out of favor, having been replaced by the violin family on the continent long before the 1680s. (Italian music for virtuoso violin goes back to the early seventeenth century - see my "Listmania List" of some of this wonderful music.) By the mid eighteenth century the string quartet had eclipsed what was left of the viol consort's legacy.
Purcell's Fantasias are the most significant and rewarding chamber music written before the Classical age of Hadyn and Mozart's string quartets. They feature polyphonic writing that are worthy of Bach himself and like Bach's Art of Fugue and A Musical Offering, written seventy years after the Fantasias (the back of the CD mistakenly says that the Art of Fugue was the precedent for the Fantasias), the contrapuntal writing is brilliant, complex, and overflowing with inventive genius. But not only was writing for viol consort considered outmoded by the 1680s, counterpoint was also (alas) deemed old hat, and so perhaps aware that they would find no contemporary audience, Purcell did not even attempt to have his set of Fantasias published, a body of work made all the more incredible by the fact that they were written by a young man of only twenty years of age!
The heart of the work is Fantasia XII in Four Parts (track 14), itself a miniature masterpiece. It is here that Purcell pulls out all the emotional stops and during which an almost cathartic climax is reached with the use of continuous modulation, a practice that continues with the wonderful final piece of the set, In Nomine in seven parts (track 15), whose theme is a church choral. Nonetheless, the In Nomine was not intended to be the final piece, but rather as an introduction to additional Fantasias that Purcell had drafted in 1683 but which were unfortunately not completed.
I think this the best available recording of the Fantasias, which are truly brought to life with a gripping performance, which is particularly refreshing (and necessary) given the fact that viol music can easily sound dull and bland given the rather `hollow' and homogeneous sound of the viol vis-à-vis the violin family. But Jordi Savall achieves just the right blend of sound with the instruments to capitalize on the haunting character of the viol at its best to express the melancholic mood that characterizes much of this work (most of the Fantasias are in a minor key). However, one relatively minor complaint about this performance is that Savall has the annoying habit (on this and most of his other recordings) of humming along with the music (like Glenn Gould) and also of making odd and rather obscene-sounding noises that can be somewhat distracting. But given the overall power and beauty of the performance, this should not deter the potential listener.