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"The Pleasures of the Imagination - English 18th Century Music for the Harpsichord"

Sophie Yates, harpsichord

rec: August 21 - 22, 2015, Bristol, St George's, Brandon Hill
Chandos - CHAN 0814 (© 2016) (75'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778): Sonata III in G [4]; Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Sonata in c minor, op. 17,2 [5]; John BLOW (1648/49-1708): Dr Blow's Chacone in FaUt in F; Morlake's Ground; Jeremiah CLARKE (c1674-1707): Suite No. 2 in A [1]; William CROFT (1678-1727): Suite in d minor; Maurice GREENE (1696-1755): Suite of Lessons in C [3]; Richard JONES (?-1744): Third Set of Lessons in B flat [2]

Sources: [1] Jeremiah Clarke, Choice Lessons, 1711; [2] Richard Jones, Suites or Setts of Lessons, 1732; [3] Maurice Greene, A Collection of Lessons, 1750; [4] Thomas Augustine Arne, VIII Sonatas or Lessons, 1756; [5] Johann Christian Bach, Six Sonatas, op. 17, 17792

When a disc with English keyboard music is released most people probably expect a programme of pieces by English virginalists. The keyboard music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries is frequently performed and recorded. In comparison the music of the late 17th and the 18th centuries is far less common. Among the composers of that era the harpsichord suites by Henry Purcell and the arrangements of pieces from his stage works are the best known. Given this state of affairs the present disc with compositions from this period in English music history makes much sense.

If one starts to listen to this disc the two pieces by Blow raise the question why on earth they are hardly known. I heard Dr Blow's Chacone in FaUt for the first time in the 2015 Utrecht Early Music Festival, during a recital by Richard Egarr. He wanted to show that Blow was a fine keyboard composer and this piece proved him right. It is quite remarkable for its unusual harmonic progressions, including strong dissonants and prominent chromaticism. Morlake's Ground which links up with a long tradition of writing pieces over a ground bass is more moderate in this respect but still includes some quite spicy passages. A look in the article on Blow in New Grove reveals that he has left quite a number of harpsichord works and organ voluntaries. A complete recording is long overdue.

Henry Purcell was Blow's most famous student. He is omitted here as his keyboard output is far better known, although it would be an exaggeration to say that it belongs to the standard repertoire of harpsichordists. Instead we get suites by two other Blow students, Jeremiah Clarke and William Croft. Clarke has become known for just one work: the so-called Trumpet Voluntary. ArkivMusic lists 125 recordings of this piece to date. Otherwise next to nothing from his oeuvre is available on disc. His output includes 34 separate pieces, two suites and a collection of seven Choice Lessons from which Sophie Yates selected the second suite which comprises three movements: Almand, Round O and Jigg. Stylistically Clarke is close to Purcell and the 17th century in general. In contrast William Croft is more modern. According to Ms Yates his Suite in d minor, consisting of three movements and "characterised by longer phrases and use of sequences, foreshadows the exuberance of Handel."

The latter is also omitted here. He was by far the most dominant figure in the English music scene of the first half of the 18th century. Without suggesting that his keyboard music is frequently performed and recorded most of his output in this department is available on disc. Moreover, it is questionable whether his keyboard music can simply be counted among 'English keyboard music' as some of it may have been written during his Italian sojourn or even in his early years in Germany. One composer who felt the competition of Handel was Maurice Greene. They had been on friendly terms for some time but later there relationship was so troubled that - according to Charles Burney - "for many years of his life, [Handel] never spoke of [Greene] without some injurious epithet". The largest part of his oeuvre comprises anthems and other liturgical music as well as some secular works, including Italian cantatas. His keyboard oeuvre is relatively small but shows the development to the galant style. The Suite of Lessons in C is taken from a collection of 1750. Sophie Yates mentions that he started to introduce dynamic effects; he must have been one of the first in England to do so. The suite recorded here is different from, for instance, Croft's in that the importance of the left hand is reduced in favour of the right hand which has the bulk of the melodic material.

The longest suite on this disc is from the pen of Richard Jones, the least-known name in the programme. He was educated as a violinist and in about 1730 was appointed leader of the orchestra of the Drury Lane theatre. Possibly a masque by Jones was performed there in 1723, but unfortunately the music has been lost, just as most of his other compositions for the theatre. What has been left of his oeuvre is two collections with pieces for violin and bc, a solo cantata, some fragments from his theatre music in arrangements for keyboard and the 6 Suites or Setts of Lessons for harpsichord from 1732. In 2007 Hungaroton released a disc with three suites from this set, recorded by Judit Péteri. In her liner-notes she states that "[if] we had to characterise the suites of Jones in a single word, perhaps it would have to be that they are strikingly irregular". With that she refers to the very different texture of the suites, some of which include movements called toccata - not something one expects in a suite. They are all of different construction and they are quite long, in comparison to the other suites in the programme. It is telling that Ms Peteri recorded only three suites and her disc lasts almost 70 minutes. The Third Set takes a little less than 18 minutes here. It opens with a prelude which comprises four sections: allegro, largo, allegro, largo. Then follow a number of dances but also an allegro and a largo.

Thomas Augustine Arne has become mainly known for his music for the stage. As he was a Catholic there was little opportunity to write sacred music. As a composer of music for the theatre in English he was quite successful. The VIII Sonatas or Lessons are his only contribution to the genre of keyboard music; they were printed in 1756. The Sonata III in G includes three movements: a prelude of an improvisatory character, an allegro and a minuet with two variations.

The programme ends with a sonata from the Six Sonatas op. 17 by Johann Christian Bach. The set was first published in Paris, but it is unlikely Bach specifically composed them for the French market. There are reasons to believe that they were written long before the year of publication. Ernest Warburton, specialist in Johann Christian's oeuvre and the editor of the catalogue of his works, believes that some may have been written in the early 1760s, before he settled in England. It is often stated that these sonatas were specifically intended for the fortepiano, for instance considering the dynamic markings, but that is questionable if some of them are much older, albeit often in earlier versions. Because of that a performance on the harpsichord is fully legitimate, especially as at the time of printing the fortepiano had not fully established itself in England as yet.

Sophie Yates is one of the finest keyboard players around who often comes up with interesting programmes. That is certainly the case here. She is a most eloquent advocate of this neglected repertoire. With her style of playing this music is anything but dull and as a result this disc is a compelling music lesson. She plays two different harpsichords, both copies of French 18th-century instruments. These are certainly fine harpsichords and suit the repertoire well but this disc would have been even more interesting if English instruments had been used, especially as such harpsichords are not that well known.

It is to be hoped that English keyboard music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries will receive more attention than they have so far. I would like to mention here a disc with keyboard music by Croft, played by Colin Booth and a set of two discs with his complete keyboard works, performed by Julian Rhodes (Ismeron, 1999). Arne's sonatas are available complete in a recording by Christopher Hogwood (Decca/Eloquence).

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Sophie Yates

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