Aside from his hymn settings, this was my proper introduction to Henry Purcell. I had often heard him hailed as the last English composer before Elgar great enough to be internationally acclaimed. As far as this goes, Purcell is certainly great. For comparison, I find his style more muted than Handel, the only other 'English' Baroque composer I can use as a reference. If this were Anglican church music that would be expected but this is theatre music, so I take it to be safe to make that judgement. Like English Baroqe architecture, the relative sombriety and austerity of Purcell's Baroque music is probablly just what characterizes it as English. Of course, the period instruments used for this recording but adds to that. There is no outrightly dramatic flourishes here, but all makes for very good listens.
The ealier discs are the more enjoyable in this package; there we have sets of music, incidental or otherwise, for a play which are more 'complete', namely Purcell composed a good number of the pieces used for the particular production. Thus we have 'suites' of sort with movements, so to speak. The later discs collect together compositions Purcell did for various other plays for which he was not principle composer. So there it ends up feeling more like a mish-mash compilation of whatever is left in the repertoir. The songs and performance are all good, but it does leave you feeling that the music is more insubstantial than in the earlier discs, not least giving the impression of being comparatively repetitive because they all feel a bit random played on the speaker in no particular order. Still, on the whole, it is worth every penny if this - authentically performed music for the Restoration stage - is your kind of music. Purcell clearly handled the diverse requirements of drama with great skill. There is nothing dramatic or spectacular here; on modern stage and screen they would all probably be used for the same kind of situation. Here it's all about subtlety.
To compare Purcell with Handel is very foolish. Handel is from a different age and a totally new concept of Harmony. Where in Handel where everything fits and flowes to geather. where as Purcell uses disonences that sceem out at you,he was very ahead of his time. Handel himself said that Purcell was a greater composer than him. Handel was not modest and can here be believed.
This is the only complete collection of Purcell's theatre music so it is obviously worth acquiring to enjoy this wonderful music. Recently I revisited this set having had versions of it in my collection for over twenty years. Very quickly I realised why I didn't play it very often. The singers are "on the book", there is no sense of theatre or dramatic involvement in how they deliver this music. Listening to David Thomas delivering three dramatic songs from Don Quixote is like listening to paint dry (if that's possible) The wobbly unvaried precious middle class delivery is so at odds with the gutsiness of this music it's almost painful. Some singers, notably Judith Nelson, bring a fresher and more appealing approach. But still we have to hope that the new Naxos version is going to bring the guts and drama back into this music. A new version is certainly overdue.