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Howard BLAKE (b 1938)
Violin Sonata, op.586 (1973 – 2007) [23:41]
Penillion, op.571 (1975/2005) [9:32]
Piano Quartet, op.179 (1974) [27:14]
Jazz Dances, op.520a (1976/2008) [13:48]
Madeleine Mitchell (violin), Jack Rothstein (violin), Kenneth Essex (viola), Peter Willison (cello), Howard Blake (piano)
rec. 9 October 1974, Conway Hall, London (Quartet), 24 and 25 May 2008 (Sonata), 13 July 2008 (Penillion) and 14 July 2008 (Jazz Dances), Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. DDD
NAXOS 8.572083 [74:15]
Experience Classicsonline

Released to coincide with his 70th birthday, this disk of, mainly, "recent" chamber works by Howard Blake is a welcome reminder that there is so much more to this interesting composer than Walking in the Air and a myriad of film and TV scores.

Whilst a student Blake formed a violin and piano duo with the late Miles Baster – it was after a recital they gave in Edinburgh, which ended with the Franck Sonata, that Baster was asked to form the Edinburgh Quartet (for whom Blake has recently completed a String Quartet for their 50th anniversary) – and they worked their way through the whole of the repertoire for their instruments. The Violin Sonata was written at the behest of Baster but as he left for Scotland and the new Quartet the work was abandoned with only a few sketches made. A decade later Jack Rothstein asked for a Sonata and the first version of the present work was written. But what we have here is a "ferociously" (Blake’s word) revised version, dedicated to the memory of Baster. Starting in a most unprepossessing way the music soon moves into typical Blakeian rhythmic and melodic mode, and the movement progresses in a dance–like manner, with short lyrical episodes breaking up the forward movement. Although this music doesn’t sound at all like Douglas Lilburn’s magnificent Violin Sonata (1950) it reminded me of that work because of its sheer determination of purpose. The slow movement which follows is distant and withdrawn, the music moving simply in a melodic line for the violin accompanied by a single line in the right hand of the piano and held chords in the left. An agitated and passionate middle section, with wide leaps for the fiddle, disturbs the calm but the opening section returns, a little more resigned and melancholic. The finale is a laconic and gently humorous piece, after a whirlwind start, which jumps from idea to idea without resting. This Violin Sonata is a very fine achievement and a worthy addition to the repertoire.

Penillion was originally written for violin and harp and exists in several different version – one for flute and harp is available on a disk of Blake’s chamber music, Meridian CDE84553. It’s in eight very short sections mixing lively and restrained music. As befits a penillion – a Welsh composition where an harpist accompanies him/herself whilst singing – these are songs without words, but the harmonies are far more modern than anything you’d hear in a real penillion. It’s an unpretentious, delicate piece.

That the Piano Quartet should be included here is of special significance for it was with this work that Blake made the conscious decision to cut back on his more commercial, and lucrative (!) film work and turn to the concert hall. Indeed so much is it a pivotal work in his catalogue that he turned down the opportunity to score Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in favour of writing this work. The work was written for the performers playing here, who gave the première, in the Purcell Room, eight months after this recording was made. It’s a very classical work in the mould of Dvořák’s chamber works (a comment which shocked Blake when I mentioned it to him, for he had thought it to be rooted slightly earlier). No matter. It’s a fine work, strong themes, a well thought out design, very gratefully written for the instruments – Blake fully understand strings (he says he once played the fiddle badly). The scherzo, second, movement has a Mendelssohnian lightness and freshness about it, but the harmony belies anything pre–1940! The slow movement may come as a shock to anyone who knows Blake’s wonderful Piano Concerto (re–issued this month: October 2008, Sony 88697376972 review) for this is the Concerto’s slow movement in embryo. It’s very touching in this form, the emotion more restrained, the gestures smaller but no less moving. The finale is a country dance.

The Jazz Dances make a delightful collection of encore pieces, but they’re not jazz per se, rather jazzy pieces – in the way that the Blues in Ravel’s Violin Sonata is jazzy. It’s hard to believe that these pieces, which fit perfectly on to the combination of violin and piano, were originally written for two pianos! They are by turns fast and slow, one a blues, one a boogie, one a kind of popular song and so on. Like the Five Pieces, op.84 (1964) by his friend Malcolm Arnold any one of these miniatures would make very good encore pieces for they are most enjoyable and great fun.

This is a very enjoyable and exciting disk, not least for the superb Violin Sonata. Madeleine Mitchell is a committed advocate for this music and it is to be hoped that the Sonata, at the very least, will enter her regular repertoire. The composer himself is a sympathetic duo partner, and the sessions brought back, for him, the memories of his partnership with Baster and the joy and satisfaction of playing chamber music together.

Despite the fact that the recording of the Quartet dates from 34 years before the recordings of the other works, the sound is remarkably consistent and has a lovely, rich, ambiance and in the duo works there is a real feel of the concert room. The musicians are placed a little way from the microphone so as to put them in perspective with the acoustic.

Now Naxos has dipped its toe into the Blake catalogue might I make a plea for a disk of his music for string quartet? The public deserves to hear more of this endlessly fascinating and very interesting composer.

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

Howard BLAKE (b. 1938) Piano Concerto, Diversions, Toccata – A Celebration of the Orchestra, Howard Blake (piano), Robert Cohen (cello) Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir David Willcocks (Concerto), Howard Blake (Diversions and Toccata)
rec. 1990, reissue SONY CLASSICS 88697376972 [68:21] 

Bob Briggs talks to Howard Blake


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