Blackford Mirror of Perfection
Richard Blackford’s Mirror of Perfection was inspired by a visit to Assisi in 1995. This encounter with the life and works of St Francis was a ‘personal epiphany’ for Blackford who has, as the booklet-note puts it, ‘stripped away every superfluous complexity and encrusted excess of modern musical language’ to emulate in this composition the purity and simplicity of St Francis’s life. While the composer’s initiative is to be applauded, the truth of the matter is that he has not yet stripped away enough. He may have done away with modernism, but he has also left the full paraphernalia of the English ‘Three Choirs’ tradition intact.
The story about the card-carrying member of the avant-garde who renounces harsh-edged sounds in favour of a new, austere (tonal) simplicity has, of course, been done before – in fact as long ago as the early 1970s, when Arvo Part, Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener first decided to gird up their loins. But whereas all these three composers managed at that time to discover a genuinely new angle on tonality, you feel at times as if Blackford’s works could have been written by a British composer at any time in the last 50 years (and this may be a conservative estimate). Compare the handling of ancient church chant in Mirror of Perfection with cantatas and oratorios by Holst, Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells – even Sir George Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims from 1931 – and you’ll understand what I mean.
In terms of sheer compositional technique, however, Blackford scarcely puts a foot wrong. This work has been perfectly conceived for performances by amateur and semi-professional choral societies, and could even make a powerful impression on singers unfamiliar with Blackford’s sources. The impact of ‘Canticle of the Furnace’ and ‘Canticle of Love III’ will diminish, on the other hand, if you happen to know the relevant storm music and passacaglia passages from Britten’s Peter Grimes. ‘Canticle of Love II’ has a similarly close encounter with the Prelude to Parsifal but remains, in this performance at least, the most compelling movement of the whole work. Let’s be clear here: occasional references to other composers’ music can often be forgiven for the sake of a good tune. It’s just a shame that Blackford, perhaps mindful of the austerity of his chosen subject, has not seen fit to oblige us in this respect.
Which begs the question why a hard-pressed record executive (there is always one) would be interested in recording this particular work and not, for the sake of argument, Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi or even Messiaen’s opera,
Bo Skovhus remains for me the outstanding baritone of his generation and stamps this recording, too, with the authority of his presence. Its sound may lack the thrilling quality of recent Sony Classical recordings with the Westminster Abbey Choir under Martin Neary; but as an introduction to Mirror of Perfection this performance is also unlikely ever to be equalled.'