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Howard BLAKE (b. 1938)
Piano Concerto, op.412 (1990) [25:52]
Diversions, op.337 (1984) [20:45]
Toccata – A Celebration of the Orchestra, op.386 (1988) [21:44]
Howard Blake (piano), Robert Cohen (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks (Concerto), Howard Blake (Diversions and Toccata)
rec. 19-21 December 1990, Sony Studios (Studio 1, The Hit Factory), Whitfield Street, London. DDD
reissue of CBS (Sony) HB3 23
SONY CLASSICS 88697376972 [68:21] 
Experience Classicsonline

For a composer with such an impressive body of work as Howard Blake it is scandalous that he should be known by only a few pieces – the most famous being his score for the animated film The Snowman. His music is readily approachable, quite often has a smile on its face (a characteristic of the composer himself), and his catalogue is frighteningly diverse, ranging from music for The Avengers ("A glass of champagne, Mrs Peel?") to scores for some 60 films, including Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (available on Airstrip One AOD HB 002), and far too much concert music to begin listing here. This year he turns 70 and shows no signs of slowing down, having recently completed a stunning String Quartet, named Spieltrieb, and started work on his 1st Symphony!

This is a timely re–issue, to coincide with his birthday on 28 October, featuring three concertos, one each for piano, cello and orchestra. The Piano Concerto was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra to celebrate the 30th birthday of Princess Diana, who was the orchestra’s patron. Blake was promised a pianist of the calibre of Kissin as soloist so he wrote a true virtuoso work only to be told, as he reached the end of the composition that, as no–one was available, he would have to play it himself. He rose to the challenge, despite having never played a Piano Concerto in his life, and gave the première in the Royal Festival Hall, in London, shortly after making this recording.

In the usual three movements, and, as with his Violin Concerto (available on ASV CDDCA 905), the first movement takes up the bulk of the playing time, it is a joyous piece, starting with the simplest and most innocent of ideas – and what an idea it is, pregnant with possibilities – which returns in the finale and is transformed at first into a musical box idea, then a fugue and finally a rhumba! These two fast movements – Blake is a master at writing sustained fast music, which is none too easy and is seldom encountered in so much music of today – enclose a tender slow movement which truly has an heart of gold. The piano writing is of the most virtuoso kind, the orchestration is colourful and always interesting – just listen to the wonderful writing for brass – especially the horns – at the beginning of the recapitulation of the first movement. It sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it – which is often. Nobody can afford to miss this, one of the truly memorable Piano Concertos of the last century for it is fine stuff indeed. I will stick my neck out and say that, for me, it is the most sheerly joyous Piano Concerto since Ravel’s in G.

Blake talked quite extensively about the genesis of the work when I interviewed him recently.

The Diversions is a more serious and complicated work. Originally written for cello and piano, in 1973, it was a meeting with the great French cellist Maurice Gendron, eleven years later, which brought about a full scale concerto piece and the orchestration was completed in 1985. In eight movements, some very short, the work shows the cello off to great advantage in richly romantic music, the soloist quite often singing its heart out in wide ranging melodies or showing off its agility with rapid passage work. There’s an extended Aria (movement 5), a wonderfully Gallic Serenade (movement 6) and the work ends with a riotous finale. The cello repertoire still isn’t as big as it should be, given the amount of fine players around, and this is a valuable addition to the catalogue. Cohen is one of this country’s best players and he is grossly under represented on disk so it’s good to have this example of his work. He plays with total conviction, as if he’s been playing the work all his life, and it’s a thrilling performance, brilliantly accompanied by the Philharmonia.

To end, the orchestra itself comes under the spotlight. First the woodwind, with gloriously gamboling bassoons, entertain us, soon joined by the horns. Gradually all the various instruments join in until the full orchestra has entered the game. This, however, is no display piece in the manner of Young Person’s Guide or the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. The tempo is fairly relaxed, there’s much humour – Blake is a very funny man and I can hear him now doing impressions or telling stories of the people he has known and worked with – and, in a way, it’s as much a portrait of the composer as it is a work celebrating the orchestra.

This disk must not be missed on any account for it contains music by a much under-rated composer whose voice is clear and well focused, who can communicate with his audience, can write fluently and with great confidence for the full orchestra and, best of all, knows how to entertain. The performances are magnificent, the sound gloriously full and rich and the notes from the original (1991) issue by the much missed Christopher Palmer, who also produced the disk, although out of date in some respects, are a lesson in how to write clearly and without fuss about music.

Beg, steal or borrow the money to buy this disk, for, once heard, you’ll not want to be without this marvellous music.

Bob Briggs


see also

Howard BLAKE Violin Concerto "The Leeds"; A Month in the Country; Sinfonietta for 10 brass instruments . Christiane Edinger (violin) English Northern Philharmonia conducted by Paul Daniel ASV CD DCA 905


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