Blow: Venus and Adonis

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COMPOSERS: Blow,Lambert,Visée
LABELS: Wigmore Hall Live
WORKS: Blow: Venus and Adonis; Cloe found Amintas lying; Ground in G minor for Violin and Continuo; Lambert: Vos mépris chaque jour me causent mille alarmes; Visée: Chaconne
PERFORMER: Sophie Daneman, Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone); Theatre of the Ayre/Elizabeth Kenny

The easy sensuality of the 17th-century court of Charles II found no purer expression than Blow’s Venus and Adonis. Fascinatingly, the work is also a sneer at royal circles, where fickle ‘courtiers [have] no faith’. The king’s mistress Moll Davies led the first cast as Venus, together with their illegitimate daughter as Cupid. In the masque, Venus presses Adonis to join a hunt because she, suspecting he is tiring of her, has decided to play hard to get.
While she calls upon the Graces for beauty aid, he is killed by a boar. That we now know a woman wrote the libretto adds to our sense of lived experience in its treatment of male fickleness and female vulnerability. Blow’s score brings together melting duets, sprightly dances and some curvaceous arioso lines that toy seductively with listener expectations, and this performance superbly captures his musical coquetry. The true stars here are the band, led by Elizabeth Kenny, which extemporises and pushes tempos to giddy extremes.
Elin Manahan Thomas steps boldly into Cupid’s role, alternating deftly between the arch, the tender and the impassioned in a subtly nuanced performance. Less convincing is Sophie Daneman, whose scooped notes smudge the clarity of Blow’s melodies and her own embellishments.
The intonation of supporting vocalists, including girls from the Salisbury Cathedral School, is sometimes off-centre. As a result, this interpretation remains in the shadow of René Jacobs’s flawless and irresistible 1999 recording of the work with a stellar cast. Doubtless electrifying when performed at Wigmore Hall, this production by Theatre of the Ayre charms less on a digital disc where its defects are laid bare. Berta Joncus