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CD reviews

"English Harpsichord Music"

Ruth Dyson, harpsichord

rec: July 1990, [no place]
Heritage - HTGCD 215 (R) (52'36")

John BLOW (1648/49-1708) Chacone in F; Ground No 1 in G; Suite No 5 in d minor; Suite No 10 in G; Thomas CHILCOT (1707-1766) Suite No 1 in g minor; William CROFT (1678-1727) Aire in g minor; Minuet in g minor; Suite No 3 in c minor; The Duke of Ormond's March; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) Rondo (Abdelazer) [Round O] (Z T684); Ground in d minor (Z D222)

The Heritage label reissues recordings some of which date from the vinyl era. That is generally to be welcomed, but one of the shortcomings of these discs is the poor documentation. That is also the case here. In the track-list the catalogue numbers of the pieces by Purcell are not given, and it is also unclear whether the various suites are performed complete. Fortunately the booklet - if you would call just four pages a booklet - contains some information about the composers and their time by Ruth Dyson.

It is a shame that no information is given about the harpsichord she plays. It sounds like an English instrument of the early 18th century. That would certainly be the most suitable choice for a performance of English harpsichord music from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Strangely enough this repertoire doesn't receive that much attention. Over the span of some forty years that I have frequently attended live performances and listened to commercial recordings very little of this repertoire has ever crossed my path. Thanks to more adventurous keyboard players some of this music is available on disc, for instance in a recording by Colin Booth. Croft's music is of a good quality and deserves more attention. Therefore it is nice that this recital of English harpsichord music includes some of his compositions.

The programme begins with John Blow who is better known for his sacred music. His keyboard oeuvre is substantial, though, and quite individual in character. His treatment of harmony is especially noteworthy. The opening piece, the Ground No 1 in G, ends with a passage full of strong dissonants. The saraband from the Suite No 5 in d minor contains some spicy harmonies. The Chacone in F also bears witness of Blow's skills as a composer of keyboard music.

The suite was one of the main forms of keyboard music around 1700 in Europe. Although English composers also made use of it, they didn't follow the standard structure of the 'continental' suites: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Croft's Suite No 3 in c minor, for instance, contains an almand, a corant and a saraband, but also a rondo, a ground and a hornpipe. Blow's Suite No 10 in G has a character piece, called 'Hunting Almand'. The same individual approach to the suite comes to the fore in the music of Thomas Chilcot. He is the latest composer on this disc, of the generation after Handel, and clearly influenced by him. His suites enjoyed great popularity. The Suite No.1 in g minor begins with a movement in four sections: ouverture, fugue, adagio and aria. It is comparable to the overtures of baroque operas. Next follow siciliano, corente, aria, minuet and jigg.

This suite is one of the best pieces of this disc as far as the performance is concerned. In particular the closing jigg is very well played. Also good is the 'Hunting Almand' by Blow. The performance is quite evocative, and the hunting effects come off well. Otherwise I am not that impressed with the performances of Ruth Dyson. Some tempi are a bit slow, in particular Purcell's Rondo from Abdelazer. A bigger problem is that Ms Dyson often plays staccato, and that results in too little differentiation between good and bad notes. The result is that the dance rhythms are not always clearly noticeable, for instance in Croft's Menuet in g minor. Colin Booth's interpretation I mentioned above is much better in this respect. I often find the playing a little stiff and awkward, and not as fluent as one would wish.

That doesn't diminish in any way my great respect for Ruth Dyson who played a key role in the development of keyboard playing on historical instruments in Britain. I would like to refer to a nice obituary which was published in The Independent on 19 August 1997. This disc stands as testimony of her activities in this field. From that perspective it is very welcome as it documents an important aspect of the development of historical performance practice in Britain.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

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