Why did historical-performance recordings have such a bad name for so long among ordinary classical listeners? Perhaps it was because it was old instruments themselves that were revived first; studies of how to play them expressively came later on. Look no further than this box set for examples of performances that drain the verve from some very snappy Baroque music -- the large body of songs and instrumental incidental pieces Henry Purcell wrote for the theater over his brief compositional career. These performances were originally issued between 1974 and 1983, and the analog sound does not make the transition to compact disc especially well. These are mostly short pieces; some of the instrumental interludes last no more than a minute or two. They are quite miraculously defined by a few quick lyrical strokes, but Hogwood's monotone approach reduces them to the background music that they would have been in a lesser composer's hands.
Decca label personnel apparently believe that there are hardcore Hogwood fans out there with a burning desire to hear six discs' worth of his Purcell. Perhaps they're right. Hogwood's restrained yet tense approach was at its best in an accompanimental role, and these recordings did showcase a generation of English early music singers at their best. Emma Kirkby was rarely more graceful than in this repertory, and soprano Judith Nelson in particular has an unaffected English diction that's a pleasure to hear. A large group of singers of the era (16 in all) is represented, along with the Taverner Choir under the direction of Andrew Parrott.
In their day, the LP albums from which these performances might well have been the only available choices for Purcell's theatrical music. The intervening years, however, have brought an explosion of alternatives. Discs of instrumental pieces by the Parley of Instruments and of such works as the "semi-opera" King Arthur led by conductor John Eliot Gardiner make better places to start with a repertory that offers a wealth of joys.