Emboldened by her experiences with the solo keyboard of the shadowy English composer from the first half of the 18th century, Richard Jones (the Sets of Lessons for the Harpsichord, London, 1732 – recorded in 2010), and propelled by her zest for rediscovering unwarrantedly neglected music for her instrument, Mitzi Meyerson has returned to the music of this enigmatic figure with a second release on Glossa: Jones’s Chamber Airs for a Violin (and Thorough Bass). This collection of violin sonatas was published in London and 1735 and for the new recording Meyerson is joined by violinist Kreeta-Maria Kentala and cellist Lauri Pulakka.
How much music from this time is lying mouldering unloved and in archives, but deserving being put in front of audiences today is, of course, at best an inexact art. However, as listeners, we can be grateful for the labours of talented performers like Mitzi Meyerson, who are also equipped with the appropriate scholarly skills and the intuitive nous to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. With music from this era, one dominated both then and now by Georg Friedrich Handel, one can also think of William Hayes’s 1750 The Passions (An Ode for Music) recorded for Glossa, after much scholarly deliberation, by Anthony Rooley. Rooley has suggested that the oblivion suffered by composers such as William Hayes (1708-1777) arises in part from the condition known as ‘giantism’, or the great shadow that genius casts.
With his violin sonatas, Jones’s canvas may not be as broad as that of William Hayes and his Ode, but nonetheless, ‘Dicky’ Jones’s music repays the interest that lovers of Baroque music are prepared to invest. All the more reason, then, to speak to Mitzi Meyerson and secure from her feelings now, after two spirited (and technically-demanding) musical essays devoted to the music of Richard Jones.
Q: The biography of the 18th century composer Richard Jones seems to continue to be rather thin on the ground. What can you say about his life with any certainty?
A: There does not seem to be any information about Richard Jones. He led the orchestra at Drury Lane in London, composed a masque and a few collections which have been lost or neglected until now. Nothing is known of his early life, and the only record of his death is the obituary in a London newspaper in 1744. He had rather famous students, which probably indicates that he was a notable teacher at that time. Poor ‘Dicky’ has been long buried and forgotten. It is a great privilege to bring him into the light again after hundreds of years.
Q: Having been so interested by the Jones suites, how did you come across these eight violin sonatas? Do you think that there is more music waiting to be discovered by Jones (or by similar forgotten figures of the times)?
A: I found the violin music by happy accident. I was researching the solo Jones, because I wanted to see if there was any discrepancy between the available modern edition (Le Pupitre, edited by Stoddard Lincoln) and the original text. There were some extremely strange intervals and passages that I was tempted to change for the recording; having held the actual book in my hands and seen that these were really not errors, I kept them in. In fact, I then exaggerated the strangeness of these effects instead of glossing over them. The clerk at the library desk had given me a large stack of scores. Amongst them I found both books of the Richard Jones violin works. The current CD is the more complex of these two collections.
I have since found several extremely interesting collections of chamber music from the 18th century, all of it unpublished in modern times. I would very much like to record these in the near future.
Q: From your experiences first of playing Jones’ Harpsichord Lessons and now the violin works, is it possible to be any clearer about the musical character of Jones as a composer or as a performer? Is this music particularly difficult, as one might surmise from the title page (“Chamber Airs for a violin and through bass... for the improvement of that instrument”)?
A: Richard Jones developed his very own style of writing. The musical ideas are unique, presenting unusual phrase lengths and harmonies. It resembles the idiomatic patterns of speech, more than the regularity of poetry. The melody and bass lines are constantly in dialogue, instead of the violin having the important role and the other voice merely supporting it. Richard Jones must have been the most marvellous violinist, because these sonatas are nearly unplayable. The double-stops and melismatic writing are tremendously difficult. Also, it may well be that the sonatas are harder to play now than they would have been in the mid 1700s. By this I mean that with the advent of recording, it is now necessary to play super-humanly in tune, since the musical experience can be repeated again and again with a CD. In a concert of the time, with no temperature and humidity control, the tuning would not have held at all. I do not think that anyone would expect or possibly even notice if the intervals of these double-stops were not perfectly in tune; in any event, the concert would happen and be gone forever, and the current standard of perfection was probably never imagined at that time. I think people may have gone to concerts more to show their new evening dress, or to pass a note to a lover, or to have an acceptable reason to leave their drawing room. Nowadays concert-goers are more critical. I have seen an earnest young fellow at one of the last concerts played by Vladimir Horowitz; he arrived armed with the scores and a red pencil, and he was furiously circling the wrong notes in a frenzy. This is a serious pity! I think it is better to enjoy music than to judge it from a great height. Surely this is more what the composers of the time had in mind. But I digress slightly. Playing this music to the modern-day standard is incredibly difficult, because the spelling of the double-stops often requires impossible intervals, using E#, Gb, B#, etc. One could play it somewhat approximately in a concert and this would not be noticed, but on a CD, the tuning is really critical. I do not believe that this degree of exactness would have been the normal standard in Jones’ time. All these things make these sonatas even more challenging. The musical content is already very complicated to grasp when one studies it, and then added to that are the technical difficulties one needs to master for the modern ear.
Q: What led you to perform these works with Kreeta-Maria Kentala and Lauri Pulakka?
A: I had a concert with Kreeta-Maria some years ago, and I was immediately impressed with her abilities, her fire and virtuosity. I was equally delighted to find that she was such a sweet, kind person, and we had a wonderful time playing together. I thought then that if I ever had a project that needed a violinist, I would approach her to join me. She had a cello-colleague in Kaustinen, and so I travelled to the north of Finland to meet them and read through both books of the Jones sonatas. Lauri was as talented and warm as Kreeta-Maria, and I was very happy that they agreed to pursue the project together with me. We had a marvellous time developing the music as a group. We were like a three-legged stool, each person being an equally important part of the whole.
Q: On the recording your performing order varies that in which these violin sonatas were printed. Did you have any specific reasons for doing this?
A: No one in the baroque time would have performed an entire book of sonatas at one sitting. Now with the advent of CDs, it is a new art to make the pieces dovetail from one to the next. I always try to find the best combination of mood and key transitions. I decide what is the most arresting opening and the happiest end, and then I fit the remaining keys into this framework. Most of the time it is clear what the order should be for a CD; one can make a transition to a relative major or minor without disturbing the ear, but a sudden shift to an unrelated key would create a clash. The order on this CD is the best one for hearing it without a break between sonatas.
MARK WIGGINS© 2012 Glossa Music