Henry Purcell: The Complete Ayres for the Theatre

Originally written for musicalcriticism.com
09 September 2009

One of the really wonderful things about the anniversary industry that consumes our current music programming are the re-releases that invariably accompany the celebration of a major composer. This generous 3-CD set makes a welcome reappearance almost fifteen years after it was recorded and it is a testament to the quality of Hyperion's engineers that it has lost nothing of its original impact, sounding as fresh today as it did in the mid 90s.

A total of 34 players appear in this anthology, a bigger consort than we are usually used to with The Parley of Instruments and the music is directed from the violin by Roy Goodman who first shot to public fame as the treble soloist with King's College Choir, Cambridge in Allegri's Miserere recorded in 1963 under Sir David Willcocks. He co-founded The Parley of Instruments in 1977 with Peter Holman.

This programme, A Collection of Ayres, Compos'd for the Theatre, and upon other Occasions (1697), or Ayres for the Theatre, as it was known, was published in the inevitable flood of memorial volumes that followed the composer's death. It was the first printed collection to be comprised solely of incidental music used in the London theatres yet it doesn't present the music at it would have been heard in such establishments but rather reordered by an editor – possibly Daniel Purcell – who took great care to preserve key relationships and to include song tunes and even theatrical dances. Music that originally served a theatrical purpose, from the warning of the audience that the play was about to start to the music that came between the acts therefore migrated from the theatres into public concerts and domestic life.

One of the really fascinating parts in this anthology is the use of song-tunes by the editor in the suites for Purcell's semi-operas, Dioclesian, King Arthur, The Fairy Queen and The Indian Queen to make instrumental versions of vocal numbers. Being among the most popular songs of their day these instrumental versions would have been very popular and they reveal new dissonances that add spice not found in Purcell's original. Such is the care and skill of these arrangements however, that Peter Holman suggests in his notes that these versions may have originally been preludes or ritornelli in the original productions. Whatever their function, they make for delightful and thought-provoking listening.

The anthology presents Ayres for the Theatre complete as a publication in a form that would have been recognizable under Purcell's direction. Great care, as ever, has been taken by The Parley of Instruments to use the instrumental forces of Restoration Theatre and they have also included the appendix of pieces that were omitted from the publication. This careful musicological reconstruction combined with some truly outstanding performances make these recordings an ongoing joy for any collector. There is a great vitality in the string-playing and the continuo instruments crackle with energy even in the slower movements. Listen out too for some wonderful trumpet playing by Crispian Steele-Perkins and Stephen Keavy in the Sonata While The Sun Rises from The Fairy Queen.

This wonderful set is a most-welcome addition to this year's Purcell celebration.

The Parley of Instruments Roy Goodman (Hyperion CDS44381/3)


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