By putting together a program that is balanced with familiar hits and frequently played but no less worthy pieces, Virgin Classics has produced a satisfying compilation in A Baroque Festival. By getting top-notch performances from the Taverner Players and the Taverner Consort, directed by Andrew Parrott, the label is able to present the music in the best period style. One is never bored with the performances because these brilliant musicians are quite fleet in their Allegros and forward moving in their Andantes, and there is nothing sluggish in their Adagios. Connoisseurs of Baroque music will note with pleasure that Parrott's pacing and the group's energy never flag, so the pieces are as crisp and lively as any authentic practice ensemble could play them. Pachelbel's Canon and Gigue is perhaps the least necessary offering here, but it is at least played as it was written -- for three violins and continuo -- and taken at a fairly brisk clip, so there is not a trace of modern sentimentality in this bravura performance. Other selections are more or less expected, such as Handel's famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, and the equally familiar Sinfonia from Bach's Cantata No. 29, but there are plenty of pieces that don't get as much popular attention, notably Purcell's charming Three Parts upon a Ground (which could give Pachelbel's Canon a run for the money any day), and the gorgeous Harp Concerto in B flat major, which is one of Handel's finest works, played here in its entirety. Also of interest is the Suite of Theatre Music, which brings together several of the best-known instrumental numbers from Purcell's semi-operas, and the handful of sinfonias from Bach's cantatas that seldom appear on Baroque samplers. The recording quality is consistently clear and vibrant throughout, and the period instruments are captured with special care for their delicate shadings.
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