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Richard JONES (? - 1744): "Suites for the Harpsichord"

Judit Péteri, harpsichord

rec: June 17 - 22, 2006, Hungaroton Studio
Hungaroton - HCD 32454 (© 2007) (69'18")

First Suite in d minor; Third Suite in B flat; Fifth Suite in b minor

Being an English composer in the first half of the 18th century can't have been very easy. The German-born, Italian-bred Handel was a dominant figure and much in demand as composer of music for state and royalty. And on top of that England was the favourite country of many other composers from the European continent, like Francesco Geminiani or Attilio Ariosti, to mention just a few. Being overshadowed by these immigrants it isn't surprising many have sunk into oblivion.

Richard Jones is one of the composers from that time who is almost forgotten. He was educated as a violinist and in about 1730 he 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, three of which have been recorded by Judit Péteri.
It is evidence of the amount to which English composers of Handel's time have been neglected that these suites haven't been recorded before. It is definitely not a lack of quality which could justify this neglect. These suites are remarkable in their originality, both in structure and musical ideas.

"If we had to characterise the suites of Jones in a single word, perhaps it would have to be that they are strikingly irregular", Judit Péteri writes in the booklet. And there she hits the nail on the head. In comparison to the established pattern of the keyboard suite, the way Jones has structured his suites is most remarkable. The suite usually contained a sequence of allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. To these four other dances could be added, either in between them or after the gigue. But Jones changes the order quite often: in the Fifth Suite an allemande is followed by a gigue, then a sarabande and after a bourrée a second sarabande is included. Jones also includes movements one wouldn't expect in a keyboard suite, like a vivace and two toccatas in the First Suite, an allegro and a largo in the Third Suite and a vivace in the Fifth Suite.

All three suites played here start with a prelude, but they are very different in length and character. The prelude of the first suite is exactly what its name suggests, and is rather short, less than two minutes. But the prelude of the Third Suite takes more than seven minutes, about a third of the whole suite. It is a piece in four sections, and has the character of a toccata. In its structure it reminds me of Johann Sebastian Bach's harpsichord toccatas. There is another movement which makes one think of Bach: the second toccata from the First Suite is a kind of concerto movement, which seems a transcription of a movement from a violin concerto. At the end there is a passage which has the traits of a solo for the violin. Here a piece like Bach's organ transcription of Vivaldi's violin concerto 'Il grosso Mogul' comes into one's mind.
There are many melodious surprises, and some movements - in particular the preludes, but also the corrente of the Fifth Suite - contain harmonic surprises too. In general these suites are strongly Italian in character and some movements are quite dramatic. There is also evidence of the fact that Jones was a violinist by profession, as some passages show violinistic traits.

One can be thankful to the Hungarian harpsichordist Judit Péteri for having the courage to record three suites by this almost totally forgotten English composer. She is a pupil of János Sebestyén, studied with Jos Van Immerseel and followed masterclasses with Kenneth Gilbert. Here she shows herself to be an accomplished keyboard player who gives a very fine account of these three keyboard suites. The surprising and contrasting features of this music are clearly outlined in her interpretations, and she uses a beautiful instrument by William Dowd after Flemish models. A real English harpsichord had even increased the importance of this release, but that is only a minor issue.
I enthusiastically recommend this disc, in particular to the adventurous music lovers who like to expand their musical horizon.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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