An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell et al
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
In his booklet note for early music ensemble Arcangelo’s new recording, Bruce Wood describes how, in John Blow’s tribute to his late pupil, An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell, the composer substituted the poet John Dryden’s phrase “the god-like man” with “the matchless man.” As Wood has it, “hearing his pupil and lifelong friend deified evidently stuck in Blow’s craw.”
One could however be forgiven for describing Arcangelo’s redoubtable director Jonathan Cohen as god-like, or at the very least matchless, when it comes to bringing together the cream of the early music world’s talent to perform baroque masterpieces with such impeccable refinement and unsurpassable beauty. I’m not exaggerating. Take this latest recording for example, which I challenge anyone to find fault with, and not to be moved to tears – both of joy and sadness – by.
John Blow (1649-1708) was for so long and for so many modern-day music lovers remembered chiefly for writing the first English opera, Venus and Adonis, and for being the teacher of Henry Purcell, who modelled his own opera Dido and Aeneas on that of his master’s. But he was so much more than that. Apart from being organist of Westminster Abbey and choirmaster and organist of the new St Paul’s Cathedral
(both roles he relinquished at different points in favour of his talented students, Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke – clearly generosity was another of his admirable qualities), Blow was an astonishingly prolific composer of well-crafted vocal and instrumental music.
Of Blow’s output, which Wood writes “includes well over a hundred anthems, ten services, 40 odes, more than 120 secular and devotional songs and a smaller corpus of chamber and keyboard music,” this present programme comprises a small but representative selection.
The recording opens with the ode Begin the Song; there follows An ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell ‘Mark how the lark and linnet sing’, the Royal Ode The Nymphs of the Wells, and the symphony anthem Dread Sir, the Prince of Light. These are complemented by three instrumental works, a Chaconne a 4 in G, a Ground in G Minor and a Sonata in A.
For this recording, Cohen, directing from harpsichord or organ, has enlisted the talents of a quintet of baroque string players and the wonderful theorbo and guitar player, Elizabeth Kenny. Joining tenors Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker are an equally select team of other vocalists including soprano Emma Walshe, countertenor David Allsopp and bass William Gaunt. All are matchless – if not god-like.