Henry Purcell's Fantazias for viol consort came late to the game; written in 1680 and modeled to some extent after the work of Matthew Locke, the parade had gone by for the viol consort. Despite the fact that the Fantazias and In nomines stood as Purcell's main achievement in the field of chamber music, they did not appear in print until 1959 and weren't recorded until Nikolaus Harnoncourt waxed the cycle for a Vanguard LP in 1965. By the time of the tri-centenary observance of Purcell's death in 1995, quite a few ensembles had joined the game with new recordings, and that year Jordi Savall and Hesperion XX entered the fray with an Astrée recording so outstanding that it was hard to imagine how one could surpass it. Nevertheless, that same year, someone else did; Fretwork, an upstart English group founded barely a decade before and known then for only a handful of discs, mostly of contemporary music, came along to play giant killers in an especially acclaimed Virgin Classics release. By the time of the arrival of Purcell's other anniversary -- the Semiseptcentennial of his birth in 2009 -- Fretwork has managed another outstanding feat; it has managed to surpass itself in a second outing with the Purcell Fantazias, this time for Harmonia Mundi.
It is something of a bittersweet victory, as Harmonia Mundi's Henry Purcell: The Complete Fantazias appears to be the last recording with longtime member Wendy Gillespie, who subsequently yielded her position in Fretwork to gambist Reiko Ichise, also a core member of Florilegium. If one were to choose a disc to go out on, this is about as ideal as it gets; Fretwork plays Purcell with more than just precision, achieving a creamy coalescence of ensemble tone that approaches the sound of the organs that Purcell himself played upon. The thorny dissonances Purcell acquired from his dedicated study of Locke do not stick out like a sore thumb, but seem sensibly ingrained within this ensemble texture while losing none of their pungency or bite. Playing Purcell's Fantazias is a team sport, and Fretwork is a group that knows the playbook well, but it is not so ingrained with the musical text that the performance lacks spontaneity or surprise. It is quite the opposite, although the group has recorded this music before, on Harmonia Mundi's Purcell Fantazias, it approaches these pieces as though they were new and find contours in this complex music never before elucidated. Even if one already has the earlier Virgin recording of Fretwork's Purcell and cherishes it, it is hard not to recommend this splendid performance too highly.