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CD reviews

John BLOW (1649 - 1708): Venus and Adonis

[I] Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber Ensembles; Knabenchor Unser Lieben Frauen Bremen
Dir: Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs

rec: Sept 30 - Oct 2, 2009, Bremen, Studio Radio Bremen
CPO - 777 614-2a (© 2011) (65'21")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & tracklist

Amanda Forsythe, soprano; Mireille Lebel, mezzo-soprano; Jason McStoots, hautecontre; Zachary Wilder, tenor; Tyler Duncan, baritone; Douglas Williams, bass-baritone

[II] Theatre of the Ayre; Salisbury Cathedral Girls' Choir
Dir: Elizabeth Kenny

rec: May 3, 2010 (live), London, Wigmore Hall
Wigmore Hall Live - WHLive0043b (© 2011) (75'14")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover & tracklist

Sophie Daneman, Helen Neeves, Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano; Caroline Sartin, contralto; Jason Darnell, tenor; Frederick Long, bass

John BLOW: Chloe found Amyntas lying all in tears, 1st versiona, 2nd versionb [2]; Ground in g minor - version for violin and bcb; version for 2 violins and bca; Venus and Adonis, masqueab; Welcome, ev'ry guesta [2]; Michel LAMBERT (1610-1696): Vos mépris chaque jour me causent milles alarmes [1]; Robert DE VISÉE (c1660-c1732): Chaconne

Sources: [1] Michel Lambert, Ayres a une, ii, iii et iv voix avec la basse continue, 1689; [2] John Blow, Amphion Anglicus, 1700

John Blow was one of England's most prominent composers in the second half of the 17th century. In today's music practice he is largely overshadowed by Henry Purcell. His masque Venus and Adonis is by far his best-known work, which exists in various recordings. In a way it is a bit unlucky that two new recordings have been released at about the same time.

Let us first have a look at Blow's biography. He was born in Newark in a humble family. He made his first experiences in music as a singer in the Chapel Royal where he sang alongside Pelham Humfrey, Michael Wise and William Turner. At an early age he started to compose anthems, and it was his compositions in this genre which he considered the most important part of his oeuvre. In 1668 he was appointed organist at Westminster Abbey. In 1674 he succeeded Pelham Humfrey as Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and in this capacity he had great influence on choristers who were to become important composers, like William Croft, Jeremiah Clarke and Daniel Purcell. During his career Blow also composed music for the court.

It was also for the court that he composed Venus and Adonis. In its principal surviving source it is described as A Masque for the entertainment of the King. There has been some debate about whether this is in fact the first English opera rather than Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell. This view has been expressed by the musicologist Wilfred Mellers: "Blow has done something which had not been attempted before in English music ... He has made drama become music and music become drama".

The libretto is based on the legend from the Metamorphoses by Ovid, but doesn't remain fully faithful to the original story. Only recently the identity of the librettist has been discovered: Anne Kingsmill, who was Maid of Honour to Maria Beatrice of Modena, the wife of King Charles II's brother James and an opera enthusiast. This identity is confirmed by the second act which deals with the duties of the Maids of Honour, represented on stage by the Graces, according to Bruce Wood and Elizabeth Kenny in their liner-notes. A particularly remarkable feature of Venus and Adonis is that it is sung throughout; there are no spoken episodes. In this respect it breaks away from the tradition of the masque and points into the direction of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. On the other hand, it is less dramatic than Purcell's opera. It is notable that Blow's work received only one public performance, outside the court, whereas Dido and Aeneas was never performed at the public stage.

In the first performance of Venus and Adonis the role of Cupid was played by a 10 year old girl, Lady Mary Tudor, the illegitimate daughter of Charles II and the retired actress Moll Davies, who performed the role of Venus. It is a bit disappointing that in neither of the two performances an attempt has been made to make Cupid sound like a girl as in the first performance. Mireille Lebel, and in particular Elin Manahan Thomas, don't sound very girlish. Sophie Daneman and Amanda Forsythe both give fine accounts of the role of Venus. I slightly prefer Roderick Williams over Tyler Duncan as the former has more presence.

As both performances are quite good I have no real preference for either of them from a strictly musical point of view. From a dramatic angle the performance of Theatre of the Ayre comes out on top, and that is probably partly due to the fact that this is a live performance. The Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber Ensembles have performed Venus and Adonis at the Boston Early Music Festival - the booklet includes a number of pictures form this production - but has recorded it in the studio, which has resulted in a more static performance. If there is one episode where Theatre of the Ayre is considerably better it is the chorus and solo of the Huntsmen at the end of Act 1.

The additional music is largely the same. The Ground in g minor exists in two versions, and the two performances each bring one of them. Chloe found Amyntas lying also appears in two versions, for low and high voices. The CPO recording has the former which is performed very well, with the three voices blending immaculately and singing with great expression. The singers in Theatre of the Ayre's recording of the latter version are not mentioned, but here we hear two female voices and a baritone. The use of a baritone seems at odds with the scoring for high voices. It is more theatrical than the CPO recording; the voices don't blend that well, though. Welcome, ev'ry guest is a quite beautiful piece, sung with eloquence and feeling by Amanda Forsythe. The inclusion of Michel Lambert's famous Vos mépris chaque jour is a reference to the popularity of French music at the court of Charles II. The soloist is not specified; she sings this air de cour quite nicely.

Both recordings are well worth having. Even so, I still very much appreciate the recordings by London Baroque (Harmonia mundi, 1987) and the New London Consort (Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre, 1992). Neither of them is surpassed by these new productions.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Boston Early Music Festival

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