PURCELL: The Indian Queen (Chris Craker/ Scholars Baroque Ensemble) (Naxos: 8.553752)
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Henry Purcell had the curious distinction of being the last great English-born composer to receive international recognition until the series of composers born in the second half of the 19th century. When he came into the world is not perfectly clear, but it is thought sometime in 1659, and by the age of eight was composing. By than a chorister at the Chapel Royal, his voice broke at the early age of 13, and he was given the task of looking after the Royal wind and keyboard instruments. Tuning these at such an early age shows his acute ear, and by 18 he held the position - though at a low level - of composer at the court. Aged 20 he was appointed organist at Westminster Abbey, an extraordinary position for one so young. Appointments came at an alarming rate, making him a rich young man. Yet for one so famous, little is known of his personal life which ended at the tragically early age of 35.
You only have to look at the list of works he composed to believe he must have died from fatigue! Six major works for the stage, including The Fairy Queen, Dido and Aeneas and The Indian Queen; incidental music to 43 plays; orchestral works; 68 Anthems and a vast number of songs and keyboard works.
It has been said that Purcell did not advance music, but he brought perfection to everything that was to be admired in music of his time.
The text of The Indian Queen was written by John Dryden and first performed as a play in 1664. It was revived in 1694, and to bring a new dimension Purcell was asked to write a Masque to make the play into a semi-opera. Opera as such was not in fashion in England at that time, though it is said that there were many fine singers. The audiences did not enjoy recitatives, and preferred a play with musical interludes. Dido and Aeneas is therefore Purcell's only true opera, though with almost 80 minutes of music The Indian Queen was substantial 'incidental' music. The story is an exotic one of love and death, and, strangely for this period, set in Peru and Mexico. There are a number of orchestral passages, with the required arias for the major characters, together with choruses, and, to please the audience of that time, a comic interlude.
Whether it was performed in Purcell's lifetime - it was completed only a few months before his untimely death - we are uncertain. The odds are that it was not, which would fit with the addition of a final section by Henry's brother, Daniel, The Masque of Hymen, which gives the work to a happy ending.
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble was founded in 1987 by David van Asch with the idea of complementing the work of the vocal ensemble, The Scholars. That group consisted of the soprano Kym Amps, counter tenor, Angus Davidson, tenor, Robert Doveton and the bass, David van Asch. The instrumentalists of the ensemble are all specialists in the field of Baroque music and play original instruments (or copies) using techniques contemporary with that period. Singers and players work together without a director to produce performing versions of great masterpieces such as the St. John Passion by Bach, 1610 Vespers by Monteverdi, The Fairy Queen by Purcell and Handel's Messiah, all of which they have recorded for Naxos. The artistic aim of the ensemble goes beyond the so called \authenticity", with a clarity and vitality achieved by the use of a minimum number of players and singers per part, common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their concert performances have been critically acclaimed, while their recording of The Fairy Queen was voted Best Buy of 1994 by Classic CD. Now they follow this success with another Purcell 'opera'.