First an explanatory word: the title of Fretwork's new disc is "The Complete Fantazias," yet Les Voix Humaines features all 12 known Fantasias and the two In nomine plus a 13th Fantasia. That piece was left incomplete and is here finished by Matthias Maute. To those pieces, Les Voix Humaines adds two dances from The Fairy Queen and an arrangement for viols of "Dido's Lament." These instrumental works are typically described as products of Purcell's youth, though it's perhaps misleading to talk of the youth of someone who died at 36. Complex, difficult to play let alone imagine, they seem to have been written in a burst in 1680, when the composer was 20. He may have been attempting to revive a moribund genre last visited by Matthew Locke in Purcell's birth year (1659). They never became popular--until today, perhaps.
There are already fine recordings of the pieces by Jordi Savall and by the Rose Consort. These new recordings are welcome additions to the catalog. If I were to choose based on the performances alone, I would go with Fretwork's renditions, which are lighter: there's less of the early-music groan in their playing. But then the 13th Fantasia is worth hearing, and many listeners might want to hear the two dances and the transcription of "Dido's Lament." Both discs are recorded closely, and warmly. These are emotional as well as technically challenging pieces, and they are played well by both these groups. -- Fanfare, Michael Ullman, January 2010