Blake Orchestral Works

Author: 
Ivan March

Blake Orchestral Works

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, '(The) Leeds'
  • (A) Month in the Country
  • Sinfonietta

The note with this most enjoyable CD begins by suggesting that the official recognition of Howard Blake, by his award of the BEM in the New Year's Honours lists, ''could also be perceived as a vindication of tonal music in the post-modern era''. I fervently hope that this is so. In my opinion, we have for too long been battered by the 'barbed-wire' school supported by the musical establishment but not the general public, and this dominance of the musical scene by works without melody that make for singularly abhorrent listening, dies hard.
Discouraged, like so many of his contemporaries, by the avant-garde musical scene, Blake gave up composing for a period, but then suddenly, overnight he became famous for his score written for the film, The Snowman. He has used its success to withdraw from what he describes as ''the music media sector'' and devote himself to writing ''really serious scores''. (Not that there was anything at all wrong with The Snowman music in its context.) The Violin Concerto is the latest result. It was commissioned by Leeds City Council for the 1993 City Centenary celebrations and Christiane Edinger gave its premiere in Leeds Town Hall. However, using that venue (excellent for concerts) for the recording brought some problems. Obviously the soloist is fairly close-miked, and her small, sweet timbre is not always flattered; moreover, the dynamic range of the recording is very wide. The spectacular percussive interruptions that come suddenly at 2'05'' and 2'51'' in the first movement (which begins out of the mists) and again at the big climax of the Adagio, are almost overwhelming under normal listening conditions, when one has set the volume control to suit Edinger's very gentle opening.
Nevertheless, this performance (like most first recordings of important new works over the years) is special: inspired, intense, yet infused with spontaneous feeling. The work itself is full of melody and the first movement, in the received tradition of Walton, Elgar, Vaughan Williams (and, more recently our own CH), is very appealing. The performance brings a moment of utter magic in this movement when, after the soloist's hauntingly introspective (written) cadenza, the alto flute (13'55'') floats the main theme exquisitely over gentle violin arpeggios. The slow movement again brings a hushed opening, unforgettable when the violinist takes up the main theme on a thread of tone—following the big tutti—ending with a breathtaking pianissimo. The finale is in the best 'dancing' tradition of the great concertos from Mozart and Beethoven onwards, and rhythmically very like Dvorak's finale: it is most engaging and after some almost Tchaikovskian orchestral variants (delectable pizzicatos and woodwind, then horns) the composer momentarily combines the principal idea with the lyrical theme from the first movement. Energy predominates, however, and the trumpets confidently re-establish the dancing mood for the rumbustious Malcolm Arnold-style close.
The lovely suite of string music written for the film A Month in the Country is also inspired. The bittersweet nostalgia of the three slow movements makes a telling contrast with the Alla marcia second and the folksy Scherzando fourth. Again, any traces of eclecticism are absorbed into writing which carries Blake's own fingerprints. The brass Sinfonietta (written for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble) is also highly inventive and jolly (where the string suite—the film is concerned with two former soldiers coming to terms with the First World War—is essentially valedictory in feeling). Even so, it has a rather fine Andante serioso, presented very poetically by a solo flugelhorn. The scherzo is fun and the finale opens in a softer, more sonorous mood (a most effective use of harmony and brass colour) leading to a march-like rondo with a closing, rather witty, canonic treatment that contributes to a satisfying final 'coming-together'.
All brass players should relish this last piece, in an hour-long concert which is stimulating and pleasurable from first to last. I ultimately managed to find a volume setting for the concerto which worked, and I would welcome comments from readers who purchase this disc (and I hope many will be encouraged to do so) concerning the dynamic-range problem. Otherwise, the recording is first-class and the strings in the film music are most naturally caught.'

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