John Blow: An ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell (Hyperion)
★★★★ (out of five)
For a brief window in the 1690s — until the night Mrs Purcell shut her husband out in the cold — London was the go-to place for young composers in search of top tuition and an appreciative audience. Italians like Arcangelo Corelli were keen to study with Henry Purcell and English composers grew in confidence. Then, one November night in 1695, Mrs P decided not to stay up till her old man got back from the theatre and poor Henry caught cold and died, or so the story goes. Two centuries would elapse before England bred another composer of his quality.
John Blow (1649-1708) was Purcell’s early teacher and an established composer in his own right. His musical response to the tragedy was partly competitive — others were also producing Purcell laments — but also discernably personal. In the spirit of the times, Blow does not indulge in an excess of grief. His arias, written for two countertenors, are free of the stuffiness of church odes.
Blow uses the metaphor of birdsong to evoke Purcell’s soul rising to heaven. In The Power of Harmony, he cheekily quotes a phrase of “Dido’s Lament” to remind the world of what it lost. Samuel Boden and Thomas Walker contrive just the right shade of lightness to carry this off.
Other works on the album toddle along in Purcell’s shadow — song for St Cecilia’s Day and a Chaconne in G minor being written very much a la mode. Jonathan Cohen conducts the Arcangelo ensemble and the sound is crystal clear.
[Correction: Dec. 2, 2017. A previous version incorrectly stated Purcell’s dates as the 1890s rather than the 1690s.]