BLOW An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell
This release joins a surprisingly small company entirely devoted to works by Purcell’s teacher and friend John Blow (excepting the opera Venus and Adonis), and makes a welcome sight. Along with the relatively well-known Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell – a jewel of 17th-century English music – here are handsome rarities in the form of three odes showing that Purcell was not the only composer to make a musical success of this apparently unpromising genre. There are also three charming instrumental chamber pieces.
Begin the Song!, for St Cecilia’s Day 1684, is a call to sensual, in places raunchy enjoyment of music’s powers that shows Blow’s imaginative responses to text (I love the way the music smoothly mutates at ‘gentlest thoughts, that into language glide, / bring softest words, that into numbers slide’). The Nymphs of the Wells marks the eighth birthday of the Stuarts’ last hope of a royal succession, William Duke of Gloucester; if it was intended for the sickly child’s own enjoyment, as the dramatised approach and trite verse perhaps hint, Blow himself made few concessions in his own vocal lines, which in his usual way tend to the sophisticatedly meandering and surprising while always seeming to come out right in the end. Dread Sir, the Prince of Light, for New Year’s Day 1678, is if anything more straightforward, perhaps reflecting a breezier court occasion.
For many, getting to know these pieces will be persuasion enough, but the performances complete the seduction with their expert playing and singing, vigorous but tastefully realised sense of style and – despite being mostly one-to-a-part – firmly shaped contours and effective illustrative touches, such as the strumming theorbo for the Purcell Ode’s ‘jarring spheres’. The two high tenors, flirting between chest and head voice, are a sweet treat in this last piece, more often the playground of countertenors. With a recording that is wonderfully clear and alive, everything seems to be going right for Jonathan Cohen at present.