BLACKFORD Niobe (Gernon)
I’d trust the violinist who wedded works by Roy Harris and John Adams on one the most absorbing concerto discs for many years (12/16) to bring us interesting repertoire, and that is exactly what Tamsin Waley-Cohen does here, even if there are some strings attached.
Richard Blackford’s Niobe, perhaps best described as a symphonic poem with solo violin, tells of the woman who claimed greater respect than the goddess of motherhood, Leto, by virtue of the fact that she had 14 offspring to Leto’s two. Niobe had her seven sons and seven daughters killed as punishment before being turned to stone. The link to women of our own time ‘cruelly punished for offences of blasphemy, apostasy and non-conformity’ (Blackford) works to a point but Niobe’s downfall, even if we wouldn’t condone the punishment, was surely caused by a level of hubris that would hardly cause anyone problems today.
Detail, perhaps, but Blackford’s score can be similarly disorientating for all its strengths, even if those strengths are wondrous. Each of his four movements is heavily pregnant with narrative tension: a slithering depiction of ‘The Lover’, a compellingly fraught and strained evocation of ‘The Blasphemer’, a picture of her heartfelt desperation in ‘The Pleader’ and a sorrowful final movement, ‘The Mourner’, in which Blackford’s solution to the turning-to-stone – the violin akin to ‘an insect struggling in the last seconds of its life’, in the composer’s words – is a masterstroke.
His writing is thematically concentrated, notably evocative and clearly heartfelt. It is close to Szymanowski in sound and in its solutions in pitting a solo violin against a lustrous orchestra. A particularly lustrous orchestra in this case, the Czech Philharmonic, against which Waley-Cohen’s violin tone is characteristically strong and steely, notably in the double-stopped cadenza over a drone in ‘The Mourner’. The piece is only 23 minutes long and is the only work you get, which is only a problem if you want it to be.