Imagine the stupidest, most formulaic Hollywood movies you can think of: cheesy action pictures, fluffy, unfunny comedies, big but stiff epics. Now imagine that one of the greatest living composers was working in Hollywood, turning out astonishing, hauntingly beautiful and stirring musical scores for these throwaway movies. That's what you get with this set: music Henry Purcell composed for some two dozen often utterly forgettable plays (trust me--I've read a number of them!) Occasionally, when he teams up with a playwright worthy of his stature, such as John Dryden, Aphra Behn, or William Congreve, the results are even better, but for the most part you can enjoy the music here without knowing anything about the original plays.
This set originally appeared as separate LPs in the 70s and 80s, and has been long out of print. That's a pity, since Purcell spent a good deal of his short professional life in the theatre, either writing the incidental music contained on these CDs, or the music for his larger works, the semi-operas (King Arthur, The Fairy Queen, and the like). Almost all of these works are enjoyable gems; certainly, they represent a pinnacle of English 17th century music. Purcell had a genius for spinning musical gold out of the most leaden lyrics (check out his Odes and Welcome Songs on Hyperion if you don't believe me), and he does the same with the song texts in these plays.
Hogwood and the AAM offer clean, listenable performances, and the sound on these old analog discs has been cleaned up and brightened--although they were pretty good, even in the late 70s. As with most Hogwood, emotional extremes are kept to a minimum, so the "otherworldly" nature of late 17th century music, so often emphasised in more recent Baroque performances, doesn't come across here. It would be interesting to see what a group like The King's Consort would do with this music, but this set fills the major gap in the Purcell canon quite nicely.
My only beef with the reissue, as with many reissues, is that the liner notes are rather thin for a 6-cd set--the lyrics to the songs, for example, are especially missed. Still, it's a worthwhile set, and a must for fans of Purcell, English Baroque music, or anyone who just wants to experience a taste of the last days of the Restoration stage.