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Early Music

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John BLOW (1649-1708)
Music for Harpsichord and Spinet

Prelude in G; (KL 158); Prelude in G (KL157); Sett No.1 in D minor; Sett No.2 in D minor; Sett No.4 in C; Sett No.5 in G minor; from ‘A Choice Collection of Lessons for harpsichord, Spinet etc’ (1698); Sett in G minor (from The Second Book for the harpsichord, spinet etc’ (1700); Ground in G (KL5); Ground in C (KL16); Chacone in F (KL146); Chaconne in G minor (KL71); Overture in G minor (KL169); Theatre Tunes from ‘Mr.Mountford’s Delight (1689); Morlake Ground (KL60)
Robert Woolley (keyboards)
Recorded at Eltham College Music School, Oct 81 and April 82
MERIDIAN CDE 84464 [75.36]

 

This generously filled disc comes in Meridian’s 25th Anniversary series 1977-2002 in which the company are taking some of their highlights from that period. This music was originally recorded in 1981/2 and, presumably gauging from its length, featured on two LPs. No details are given and I cannot remember that far back!

John Blow was a very prolific composer of keyboard music. He was Purcell’s teacher but outlived him by thirteen years. As can be seen, almost all of this music post-dates his pupil’s premature death. The selected pieces fall into different categories. The most substantial category is the ‘Sett’. Each Sett consists of three unrelated pieces of various sorts but normally including an Alman and a Sarabande. It’s interesting to turn, as I did again, to Purcell’s eight suites for harpsichord and compare these. Purcell bases his works more on the French model with at least four movements, including a rather stiff and dotted Alman, as was usual. Purcell always begins a suite with a freewheeling Prelude, rather as a renaissance lutenist would do, effectively loosening the fingers and establishing a key. Blow’s Preludes are quite separate pieces; one begins the CD the other, curiously, almost ends it.

Purcell’s suites were compiled and published by his wife in 1696, the year after he died. With Purcell it is possible to see stylistic development. It is as if some were written when Purcell was quite young, from the simple first suite which most young musicians can tackle to the decidedly more complex later ones. In this latter category I include, for example, the Prelude to Suite VI which has distinctly Scarlatti-like two-part counterpoint. Purcell beats Blow every time in his passion, fecundity and ideas. For both composers the Sarabande and Alman are binary structures with each half repeated. The question of possible ornamentation for the repeat arises. The otherwise excellent Robert Woolley does not include any, possibly on the grounds that Blow’s melodic lines are often ornamented enough anyway. However I’m not sure that he solves the problem of keeping the interest going in some dances without this added variation.

I have commented in previous reviews that I so wish that record companies and/or performers would enlighten us as to editions used for the recording. Meridian sadly leaves us utterly in the dark on this front. I am therefore rather puzzled by Woolley’s attitude towards repeats. I have an edition of some of these pieces by Blow published by Schirmer and edited by Richard Aldrich (Early Keyboard Music Vol. 1). Now I agree that it is not the most reliable of editions but if we take one work, say the Chaconne in G minor, we find it composed over a similarly repeated bass line in four bar phrases. Aldrich’s edition indicates no repeats at all, but one feels that they are really necessary. Woolley repeats some four bar phrases but not all. This leaves this listener, at least, feeling a little unbalanced. In another piece the Ground in G major (KL5), Schirmer’s edition indicates repeats of each of the unusual five bar phrase lengths. There is even a change of time signature at one point, and it is a good idea I think. Woolley observes none of these.

With Blow there is no sense of development from Setts 1 to 5 and the publication dates (1698/1700) may even indicate that some pieces had been composed quite a few years before … possibly whilst his more famous pupils was alive.

As well as these Setts, Woolley has recorded four pieces called Grounds and as mentioned, two Chacones (sic). Both utilize repeated bass patterns although the Chaconne is more subtle and may just use the implied harmony. There are also some theatre tunes from 1689.

The instruments are carefully chosen and used. They are also illustrated, helpfully in colour, in the booklet and their background given. The ‘bentside’ Spinet (which is deliberately and elegantly curved) is by Charles Haward 1689, and on the whole is given the lighter pieces to play and it is a gentler lighter instrument. The beautiful harpsichord from the Cobbe Collection is dated 1623. So the Spinet is given the delightful Air and Minuet and the Theatre pieces for example and the harpsichord given the serious and powerful Chacones and Grounds.

Gary Higginson



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