Howard Blake’s Violin Sonata opens vibrantly but its poignant second subject alerts one to more sorrowful intimations, ones that are to recur as the sonata develops. Songfully lyric, it also embraces – in its slow movement – regretful intimacy. But Blake ensures that this is balanced by a more assertive and pained contrasting section before chimes usher in the tolling, elegiac reverie, one that ends on a sustained violin note. We are whisked away from this by the finale that freewheels virtuosically with the unabashed panache of a New Orleans funeral band returning from the graveside – but, again, not before some shimmering writing reflects on earlier material, recognising the skull beneath the skin, the loss in the laughter. It’s only when one reads that the work was dedicated to a sonata partner colleague of Blake’s, that splendid musician, the late Miles Baster – a prominent student of Albert Sammons and first violin of the Edinburgh String Quartet – that one realises the depths of utterance here. Blake hopes that Baster would have approved. Assuredly so, one thinks. This is a splendid work – at once, one senses, a violin treatise in expressivity and virtuosity, and also a subtle portrait of the impress of a lamented friend.
The Piano Quartet Op.179 is the other big work here, and it opens with Toreador brio. The corporate sonority of the group is absolutely splendid and conveys Blake’s music with total dedication. This actually is something of an anomalous recording, given that it was made back in 1974 in the Conway Hall with that arch-inspirer of a number of Blake’s chamber works, Jack Rothstein, leading the ensemble. The confident Scherzo carries on the extroversion with a cello pizzicato episode taken up by the piano in imitative drollery. There’s a classical formality about the writing and a winning generosity of spirit. There’s also a bell toll in the slow movement but it’s very different from the lament to Miles Baster in the sonata. Instead the lyricism is warm, unhurried and uncloying. Joie de vivre
drives on the finale, with its ‘stand up straight’ fugato and brief folkloric hints. This is another really enjoyable work, unashamed in its generosity.
There are hints of Copland in the Jazz Dances
for violin and piano but in the main these genial, atmospheric little pieces steer clear of anything too serious; they’re more dance-patterned than jazzy in any case: no Stuff Smith moments here. But do sample the witty Boogie movement – good fun. Penillion
exists in variant instrumentation and is a theme and variations. Here it’s for violin and piano but there’s a bardic version for flute and harp. The violin version brings out the pseudo-Romanian/Carpathian qualities of it – lovely tumbling trills, plenty of badinage, a ghostly fifth variation, and a wistful close.
Madeleine Mitchell has assumed the Baster-Rothstein place in Blake’s violinistic firmament, and bravo to that, as she is a marvellously communicative and virtuosic performer and plays with great sympathy. The composer himself accompanies throughout and with brio, reflection and delight. The recording locations – Potton Hall now, Conway Hall then – are admirable. So is this disc.