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John BLOW (1649-1708)
Symphony Anthems
God spake sometime in visions [12:50]
Hear my voice, O God * [10:35]
O sing unto the Lord a new song [16:29]
When the Son of Man (reconstructed by Robert Quinney) * [6:27]
When Israel came out of Egypt * [11:19]
I was glad when they said unto me [15:21]
* first recordings
Choir of New College Oxford
St James’ Baroque/Robert Quinney
rec. St Michael and All Angels, Summertown, Oxford, 6-10 July 2015. DDD.
Texts included.
NOVUM NCR1389 [73:01]

Reviewed as 24/96 download, with pdf booklet, from eclassical.com. Also available in mp3 and 16-bit lossless and from dealers on CD.

John Blow was Purcell’s teacher, his predecessor at Westminster Abbey and his successor after his friend’s early death. The pastoral Ode which he composed for the latter sad occasion is available in several good recordings, among which my favourites both come from Hyperion: Ruth Holton, Rogers Covey-Crump, Charles Daniels, Simon Birchall and The Parley of Instruments Orchestra and Choir directed by Roy Goodman and Peter Holman. (Hyperion CDA66578 – archive service CD or download in mp3 and lossless, with pdf booklet containing notes and texts, from hyperion-records.co.uk.) Other works commemorating Purcell, by Clarke, Finger, Hall and Morgan are included.

Blow’s Ode for Purcell also comes with his Ah, Heav’n! What is’t I hear? and duets by Purcell himself, very well performed by Michael Chance, James Bowman, the King’s Consort and Robert King on Hyperion Helios CDH55447 – CD, mp3 or lossless download with pdf booklet containing notes and texts from hyperion-records.co.uk. Some dealers may still have this at budget price, around 6.50, but even though the download has reverted to full price, that’s still only 7.99.

Blow’s music has lain unjustly somewhat under the shadow of his contemporary, so this new recording is especially welcome for a number of reasons. This is the first recording by New College Choir under its new director Robert Quinney. The other selling points are the accompaniment by St James’ Baroque on period instruments and the inclusion of three previously unrecorded anthems, marked * above, including a newly edited anthem in its first performance for 400 years.

Only one of these anthems is available on my benchmark: the Hyperion 2-CD set on which Blow’s anthems are performed by Winchester Cathedral Choir, the Parley of Instruments and David Hill (CDD22055 – reviewDownload Roundup July 2012/1), which makes both collections well worth having. Fortunately the Hyperion is a 2-for-1 offering, so buying both isn’t as extravagant as it sounds. The Parley of Instruments feature again in I was glad on another very worthwhile Hyperion recording, Music for St Paul’s, on which the choir of that cathedral and John Scott also sing Boyce’s Lord, thou hast been our refuge, Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (CDH55359 – reviewDL Roundup August 2010).

The grand anthem God spake sometime in visions, composed for the coronation of the ill-fated James II, opens both the Winchester and New College programmes. Robert Quinney adopts a slightly more leisurely pace, though the music is never allowed to droop, but otherwise there is very little to choose between the two. Both are slightly faster than Simon Preston with the Westminster Abbey Choir in Coronation Music for James II, 1685 (DG Archiv, download only or Presto CD) or Andrew Gant with The Choir of the Chapel Royal in music for the same occasion (Signum SIGCD094). I see that Johan van Veen was not impressed by the Signum – review – but, though I prefer the grander forces employed on Archiv, which I own in an earlier incarnation, I downloaded this recording from hyperion-records.co.uk, with pdf booklet, and enjoyed it, though the singing in God spake is a little less together than on the other recordings, with the trebles noticeably more insecure than those of New College.

With so much more on both the Winchester and New College recordings, both, not least the new recording, are well worth obtaining in their own rights. All the music, including the hitherto unrecorded anthems, really deserves to be heard. Dr Burney did an effective job of damaging Blow’s reputation but the ‘unwarrantable licentiousness’ of which Burney complains, using the values of his own later time, is for me among the attractions of the music.

The performances are very good, as is the 24-bit recording, though at times the instruments slightly swamp the singers – owing, I think, to the recording balance since there seems to be no lack of vigour in the singing. The instrumental parts are no mere accompaniments: the ‘twenty-four violins’ of the royal orchestra were apparently used for some of these anthems and they often have the field to themselves, hence the title ‘symphony anthems’, but I would have liked a slightly more even balance.

That’s a small price to pay for hearing such fine music in such sympathetic performances. The notes in the booklet, too, are very informative, even making a case against the usual assumption that Blow was acting altruistically in yielding the post of organist to Purcell, perhaps more an act of convenience for a busy musician.

Another neglected Purcell contemporary whose music is well worth investigating is Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), though his music is less adventurous than that of Blow or Purcell. One of his verse anthems, plus his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, together with music by Purcell features on Chandos Chaconne CHAN0790 in performances by St John’s College Choir, Cambridge, and Andrew Netsingha – Download News 2012/23. You’ll find some other Humfrey recommendations there, including a 3-CD Harmonia Mundi set which is no longer available, though the original single album (HMX2907503) can be obtained as a download from eclassical.com or stream or download from classicsonlinehd.com (both mp3 or lossless, NO booklet from either).

Neither Humfrey’s nor Blow’s music sounds like a clone of Purcell’s, though there is obviously a similarity of styles, some of it influenced by French models: indeed, Humfrey, Blow and Turner jointly composed a work known as the ‘Club Anthem’, recorded by The Sixteen on COR16041 and COR16122 – Download News 2014/7. Of all the recordings of these composers which I have listed, the Hyperion 2-CD set of Blow from Winchester is probably the best place to start, with the new recording from New College next on your list. Whichever you choose, you will probably soon wish to obtain the other: even non-specialists should find a great deal to enjoy on both.

Brian Wilson



 

 




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