musica Dei donum
John JONES (1728 - 1796): Eight Setts of Lessons for the Harpsichord (London, 1754)
Mitzi Meyerson, harpsichord
rec: Dec 2010, Berlin-Rahnsdorf, Dorfkirche
Glossa - GCD 921808 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.47'05")
Cover, track-list & booklet
Lesson I in g minor;
Lesson II in a minor;
Lesson III in D;
Lesson IV in F;
Lesson V in E flat;
Lesson VI in A;
Lesson VII in c minor;
Lesson VIII in d minor
Only recently I reviewed a disc with English keyboard music written between the late 17th century and the third quarter of the 18th century, recorded by Sophie Yates ("The Pleasures of the Imagination"). The composers have in common that their music has hardly been explored as yet which is partically due to their being overshadowed by the towering figure of George Frideric Handel. That certainly goes for John Jones as well. Mitzi Meyerson, who often pays attention to forgotten repertoire, has done us a great favour by recording his eight suites of 1754.
Jones was educated as a keyboard player. His first position was that of organist of the Middle Temple in London where he was appointed in 1749. Four years later he added the post of organist of the Charterhouse, succeeding Johann Christoph Pepusch, and in 1755 he was appointed organist of St Paul's. He occupied these posts until his death. One may conclude from this that he took quite an important place in musical life in London.
His compositional oeuvre is rather small. In his time he was best known for his 60 Chants, Single and Double of 1785. When Haydn heard one of them during his first stay in England in 1791 he was very moved. Musically more important are his keyboard works. The Eight Setts of Lessons for the Harpsichord were his first publication; they were followed by two volumes of Lessons in 1761. The list of subscribers to the 1754 edition bears witness to Jones' reputation. Among them we find composers such as Charles Avison and William Boyce and the music historian Charles Burney.
These Lessons or suites are different in texture. The number of movements varies between four and five. They include tempo indications like allegro, largo and andante but also dances, such as giga, allemand and saraband. As is so often the case with music from the mid-18th century they are a mixture of ancient and modern. The saraband from the Lesson III is a canon which is a relic of the renaissance and baroque periods. The Lesson V opens with an andante moderato which is dominated by counterpoint and has something archaic about it. But there are also modern traits. In the first allegro from the Lesson IV Jones makes use of Alberti basses and in the ensuing andantino we hear some drum basses. Both were features of many keyboard works of the time and it is notable that Jones uses them so sparingly. In general the left hand has a much more important part in these Lessons than was common in keyboard music of the time.
In her liner-notes Mitzi Meyerson points out several similarities with the keyboard oeuvre of other composers. A striking example is the moderato which opens Lesson VII: in the first half only the lower part of the keyboard is explored. Meyerson compares it with Jacques Duphly's La Forqueray but more specimens can be found in French harpsichord music, for instance in Couperin's oeuvre. In the giga from Lesson III Meyerson hears Domenico Scarlatti shine through. This could well be a case of direct influence. We should remember that Scarlatti was very popular in England; the only printed editions of sonatas from his pen were published in London. One of them was edited by Thomas Roseingrave (1739), who was one of his strongest advocates.
These suites include several movements which are remarkable for various reasons. One of them is the opening preludium from the Lesson I. It comprises a number of bars with block chords with the indication harpegio; these are alternated by episodes of a very different character. Lesson VI begins with a largo which has orchestral traits. In the eighth bar we suddenly get a kind of recitative with the indication adagio; in the rest of the piece 'tutti' and 'solo' alternate. Meyerson sees the same in the spiritoso which opens Lesson VIII. The score certainly seems to suggest that: at the sixth bar the character of the piece changes - introduced by a transitional figure in the preceding bar - with the indication cantabile andante. It is notable that it has the addition ad lib[itum]; I wonder how that has to be interpreted here. But whether this movement is indeed comparable with the largo from Lesson VI is also a matter of interpretation. Meyerson plays some chords forte but there is no indication of that in the score; in fact, Jones never makes use of dynamic indications, except in the episode I just mentioned where we find pia. which can hardly mean anything other than piano. Even so, Meyerson often uses the two manuals of the harpsichord to create dynamic contrasts which - although not indicated in the score - mostly make sense. This is all part of the freedom of the interpreter.
Other liberties seem more questionable. Lesson III closes with a gavot. Meyerson writes: "It has no relation to the characteristics of the gavotte as we know them, namely, two strong upbeats before the first downbeat in duple time. This piece is in triple time, and sounds much more like a Scottish bagpipe ditty. In order to further this effect, the right hand melody is played on the 4-foot register alone, one octave below. This gives the actual pitch that is written, but provides a completely different colour of sound, more nasal in character than the normal registration." It is not so much the use of a four-foot stop which raises questions but the fact that she takes the liberty to add drones at start and finish. She also decided to change the order of the two last movements from Lesson VIII, marche and minuet. "The order has been reversed here for the purposes of rhetoric." I find this a questionable decision; why should a performer change the composer's own order? Moreover, in music of this time the menuet often closed a piece and therefore it would have been better to follow the printed edition.
But these are relatively minor issues. In my opening paragraph I already stated that Mitzi Meyerson has done us a favour by recording these Lessons. That is true from a historical point of view but having listened to them I add that these are very interesting and musically compelling pieces. It is a bit of a mystery why they have been recorded here for the first time. Mitzi Meyerson has served Jones' music well, not just by recording them but also by delivering such outstanding performances. One may criticise some aspects of her interpretation but her performances are full of vigour and zest. She treats Jones with the same respect and engagement as compositions which are generally recognized as masterworks. And that is how it should be. Jones' suites are not just nice alternatives to the more common repertoire. These Lessons deserve to be widely known and harpsichordists can find here something substantial for their recitals.
Johan van Veen (© 2016)