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A,erican Record Guide: (03/2018) 
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Reviewer: William J. Gatens

John Blow (1649-1708) was possibly the most gifted and imaginative composer of the English Restoration period, second only to Henry Purcell. Blow was one of the first generation of boy choristers recruited by Captain Henry Cooke for Charles II’s Chapel Royal, and he remained there as an adult singer. Purcell was one of his pupils, and the two remained close friends until Purcell’s untimely death in 1695.

Their relationship has been compared with Haydn and Mozart. Blow was organist of Westminster Abbey and relinquished the position in favor of Purcell in 1679. In 1697 he became organist at Christopher Wren’s new St Paul’s Cathedral, but later relinquished that post in favor of Jeremiah Clarke. Blow regarded himself as primarily a church musician and wrote more than 100 anthems and 10 settings of the Anglican service. As a court composer, he wrote about 40 odes of various kinds and produced more than 120 secular and devotional songs as well as the opera Venus and Adonis—the first English opera without spoken dialog and a model for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Despite his voluminous output, Blow is known today for just a handful of works. One of them is the Ode on the Death of Henry Purcell, which is the centerpiece of this recording. It is modestly scored for two vocalists, two recorders, and continuo, but is generally acknowledged to be the most exquisite of the works written in memory of Purcell and, indeed, one of the finest compositions of the period. Its text by John Dryden gives it a literary distinction lacking in most odes of the time.


I would guess that most listeners will be unfamiliar with the other pieces on this recording. They include three other odes. Begin the Song! is for St Cecilia’s Day in 1684. The annual celebrations began the previous year with Purcell’s Welcome to All the Pleasures, and one can hear Blow’s emulation of the younger composer’s work. The Nymphs of the Wells (1697) is a court ode for the eighth

birthday of William, Duke of Gloucester, the son of Princess Anne and Prince George of Denmark. The child was sickly and died three years later. In the Restoration court, New Year’s Day was observed with a newly composed ode by a court poet and court composer. Program annotator Bruce Wood describes such pieces as “not so much high art as a kind of musico poetic political cartoon”. Dread Sir, the Prince of Light, the New Year’s ode for 1678, has a rather dreadful text of fawning flattery by an anonymous poet, but Blow’s music makes it worth hearing. It would probably have been performed once and never heard again. We are fortunate that this and many similar pieces by Blow and other composers have survived. Three short instrumental works, placed between the odes, complete the program: a chaconne in G, a ground in G minor, and a trio sonata in A.

Tenors Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker are the principal singers here. The Purcell Ode is scored for two countertenors, but as Bruce Wood points out, that term signified at the time a light and high tenor capable of singing with full voice in alto range, like the contempora-neous French haute-contre, and slipping into falsetto only for the highest notes. These two singers fulfill that function admirably. For the other odes, they are supplemented by an ensemble of six other singers. Of these, special notice must go to bass Callum Thorpe who, in Begin the Song! sings a formidable part probably written for the legendary John Gostling, a Chapel Royal bass singer noted for his wide range and powerful low notes.

These are exemplary performances by artists who seem to have a keen instinctive feel for the idiom. In a few spots the strumming of the theorbo and baroque guitar sounds raucous to me, but that is a small complaint. At first the recording sounded excessively close, but after discovering a pleasant playback volume, the ear adjusts. I was struck by the warmth of the recorded sound compared with several other recordings of the Purcell Ode. Arcangelo is an instrumental ensemble founded by their artistic director, Jonathan Cohen. They are especially devoted to chamber music, cultivating a quality of collaboration required for performance of the highest standard.

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