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John BLOW (1649 - 1708): "An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell"

Samuel Boden, Thomas Walker, tenor
Dir: Jonathan Cohen

rec: July 16 - 18, 2015, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Hyperion - CDA68149 (© 2017) (76'36")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell

An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell (Mark how the lark and linnet sing); Begin the song!, Ode for St Cecilia's Day; Dread sir, the prince of light, Ode for New Year's Day; Chaconne a 4 in G; Ground in g minor; Sonata in A; The nymphs of the wells, Ode for the Birthday of the Duke of Gloucester

Emma Walshe, Zoë Brookshaw, soprano; David Allsopp, alto; Nicholas Madden, tenor; William Gaunt, Callum Thorpe, bass
Sebastien Marq, Ian Wilson, recorder; Sophie Gent, violin; Simon Jones, violin, viola; Rebecca Jones, viola; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba; Timothy Amherst, violone; Benjamin Perrot, lute, theorbo; Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo, guitar; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord, organ

"John Blow is one of the greatest of not-quite-forgotten English composers". That is the first sentence of Bruce Wood's liner-notes to the present disc, devoted to this composer, who was a contemporary of Henry Purcell, which has clearly worked against his being taken as seriously as his colleague. Purcell was also his pupil, and it is one of the nice features of Blow's personality that he recognized his pupil's greatness. He occupied the prestigious post of organist at Westminster Abbey, but in 1679 he relinquished his position in favour of Purcell. After the latter's early death he returned to this post.

Blow may not have been quite forgotten, but most of his oeuvre is not available on disc. He was a versatile composer, as the work-list in New Grove shows. It includes more than ten services, a large number of anthems, some motets on Latin texts, odes for the court and for various occasions, such as St Cecilia's Day, devotional and secular songs, catches and some instrumental works, especially for keyboard. Blow's best-known piece is his masque Venus and Adonis. To date ArkivMusic lists 77 discs with music by Blow, which seems not too bad a score. However, only a few are exclusively devoted to Blow, and that tells us much about his place in music life of our time. Like Purcell, Blow wrote a number of Odes for special occasions, but these are hardly ever performed. That part of his output is the focus of this disc, recorded by soloists and the ensemble Arcangelo, under the direction of Jonathan Cohen.

The programme opens with Begin the song!, an Ode for St Cecilia's Day 1684, the second year this day, devoted to the patron of music, was celebrated with a public performance of a specially composed work. The year before Purcell had performed his Ode Welcome to all the pleasures. "Blow responded with a work whose ambitious scale contrives to outdo Purcell's first effort", Wood states, but hastens to add that the rivalry between the two men was always friendly. He also notes some similarities between the work of the two composers, but it is not always possible to establish, who influenced whom. Interestingly one of the solos, 'Music's the cordial of a troubled breast', is for a low bass, and Wood believes that it was intended for John Gostling, also Purcell's favourite bass. Inevitably Blow made use of a ground bass, here in the duet 'Hark how the waken'd strings resound'. The line-up in this piece is an interesting issue. The piece is scored for four voices, soli and tutti; Cohen has opted for a small line-up of eight voices: four soloists and four ripienists, although both basses act as soloists. Especially noteworthy is that the alto part is sung here by Samuel Boden, a high tenor, comparable with the French haute-contre.

The Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell is for two countertenors, two recorders and bc. I first heard this piece in a recording by Gustav Leonhardt, in which the solo parts were sung by James Bowman and René Jacobs, both male altos. According to Bruce Wood, in this time countertenors were "simply light tenors, singing almost entirely with the full voice and slipping into falsetto only for the very highest notes". This creates a problem of its own, depending on the singers employed. The Ode opens and closes with duets in two movements, embracing a solo in three sections. Here the first two are sung by Thomas Walker, whereas Boden sings the last, apparently because it includes some high notes, which probably don't sit very comfortably with Walker. That said, overall this line-up is quite convincing, more so than a performance with male altos, for whom these parts seem too low.

Purcell composed a pretty large number of Welcome and Birthday Odes, and so did Blow. The nymph of the wells dates from 1697 and was written for the eighth birthday of William, Duke of Gloucester. He was the second in line to the throne after his mother, Princess Anne, as King William was childless and a widower (after the death of Queen Mary in 1695). The establishment of Princess Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, was rather modest, and this explains the scoring: five voices, two violins and bc. Purcell may be a famous composer and some of his works are regularly performed, but his Welcome and Birthday Odes are not that well-known, and one of the reasons is that for a modern audience the texts of such pieces are often hard to swallow and also not easy to grasp. This Ode by Blow is no exception. Wood writes: "Its anonymous text seeks to associate the lad with the British oak: a grotesquely inappropriate conceit, for he was a deformed and sickly child who was to die at the age of eleven, thereby dashing any hopes of a Stuart's succession". The Ode consists of three duets, followed by a tutti section.

Whereas in this case the modest line-up seems entirely in line with the circumstances of the first performance, in the case of the last piece in the programme that is questionable. Dread sir, the prince of light is an Ode for New Year's Day, the first Blow composed; it dates from 1678. Wood states that such Odes were performed by the Chapel Royal, "for once at full strength (...), and the royal string orchestra, the celebrated Twenty-Four Violins, performed the new work (...)." In comparison we get here a pocket-size version: eight voices, two violins, viola and bc. The symphony which opens the piece is clearly inspired by the French opera overture, and has a grandeur, which doesn't really come off here. The text is not much better than those Purcell had to set in his Odes, but, like his colleague, Blow made the best out of it. Solos and trios are followed by tutti sections. The piece ends with "Our Monarch for ever and ever shall reign!". In fact, that reign lasted only ten years: in 1688 King James II was overthrown during the Glorious Revolution, which brought William of Orange on the throne.

In between the vocal items we hear three instrumental pieces. They constitute Blow's complete output in this genre. He composed only one trio sonata, which comprises three movements. The Ground in g minor is comparable in scoring: two violins and bc. Bruce Wood suggests that in this form it could be an arrangement by another hand, as it also exists in a scoring for violin and bass. The Chaconne a 4 in G is also composed over an ostinato, but in this case it is not a bass line, but a chord pattern. Here the ensemble includes a viola. The booklet also mentions this instrument in the other two instrument items, which must be an error, as I can't see how it should participate in pieces for two violins and bc.

I have expressed my doubts about the line-up in the New Year's Ode, and I am also not sure whether a performance with one instrument per part is appropriate in the Ode for St Cecilia's Day, which opens the programme. Fortunately, that is about the only aspect that is up for criticism. There is little wrong with the performances. Some of the soloists use a little too much vibrato now and then, in particular Samuel Boden, but it is hardly disturbing. In Boden's case I admire the way he deals with the sometimes high notes in his parts. His transitions into the falsetto register are very smooth, without an audible 'break'. Callum Thorpe deserves praise for his performances as well, because in his aria in Begin the Song! he has to explore the lowest as well as the highest notes in his tessitura. The voices of the singers blend pretty well, which is especially important in the tutti episodes.

This disc is an important contribution to our knowledge of Blow's oeuvre. It shows that he was an outstanding composer and that the relative neglect of his oeuvre is highly unjustified. More Blow, please!

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Samuel Boden
Thomas Walker

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