The British have long had a tradition of choral singing. By the turn of the 19th
century into the 20th
century there were choral festivals all over the country. The Leeds Triennial and the Three Choirs remain the best known and indigenous composers wrote prolifically for the amateur singers. And what a line of composition it is: Elgar, Stanford and Parry wrote innumerable works for chorus and orchestra. More recently we’ve had Peter Racine Fricker’s A Vision Of Judgement
and David Blake’s Lumina
(a superb work which has been unfairly neglected) (both for Leeds), and John McCabe’s Voyage
, Geoffrey Burgon’s Requiem
and Gerard Schurmann’s Piers Plowman (for the Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester meetings of the Three Choirs Festival). The list goes on and on. Now we have Howard Blake’s The Passion of Mary which, put simply, just had to be written.
Having set the Stabat Mater, Blake realised that more was needed as he hadn’t said all that he wanted to say, especially, as he realised, there was no setting of the Passion from Mary’s point of view. This work was the outcome. It is firmly of the British school of choral music. We must not forget that Blake, when younger, was a boy chorister and sang in the choir whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He took part in a performance of VW’s Sancta Civitas in the presence of the great man himself.
The Passion of Mary was given its British premiere at his 70th
birthday concert in the Cadogan Hall, in London, in October 2008. It stunned the audience with its fluency, directness and feeling of ecstasy. The effect was spectacular – overcome with emotion, the audience sat in awe at the end, feeling that applause was, perhaps, not quite right after such an experience. I was there and can attest to that feeling review
. That performance was of an exceptional quality and some of those performers have been reunited for this recording.
Although playing for less than an hour, Blake manages, with the most economic of means, to tell the whole story of Christ, from Mary’s pregnancy to the Crucifixion and after. Following a brief yet intensely effective orchestral prelude, and a bass recitative, the soprano (Mary) sings the Magnificat
, to music of high elation. The vocal line flies aloft in a finely judged orchestral setting. The orchestra is used throughout in a most restrained manner and only raises its voice once – at the time of the Crucifixion - in music of great strength and fury. This is both mystical in feel and magical in conception. Blake’s son sings the small but telling part of Jesus as a child, a wonderful stroke of imagination this, and the tenor takes the part as a man. Throughout there are choruses, recitatives, arias, duets and scenas, all of which follow one another easily and grow out of the argument. One of the most striking moments is when Satan, a suitably oily performance from David Wilson–Johnson, tries to tempt Christ. This is written, save for four urgent chords from the orchestra, as an unaccompanied scene. The work ends with a chorus worthy of Gabrieli, with joyful shouts of Gloria!
The words “masterpiece” and “a work of genius” are bandied about far too easily these days, but here they can be used with confidence for this, surely, is Blake’s masterpiece, and, from a purely musical point of view, it is a work of genius. As my friend, and colleague, Robert Matthew-Walker wrote, “The Passion of Mary
makes an immediate and lasting impact on the attentive listener, and there is no doubting the conviction of the composer and the directness of his musical utterance.” I cannot improve on that. This is superb stuff in a performance which is of the highest quality.
I was at the sessions and can confirm the immense amount of work which went into making this recording. Patricia Rozario, whose voice Blake had in his head whilst writing, glows as Mary, making the most of her long scenes, and taking the wide leaps in the vocal line as if they were the easiest things she had ever sung. Considering that the part covers more than two octaves this is, in itself, quite a feat. Richard Edgar–Wilson (Jesus, as a man) sings with an easy fluency and fine diction, displaying a beautiful high G, so soft as to make one gasp. David Wilson–Johnson (as both the Prophet and Satan) is full-voiced and creates both parts with such skill that you’d be hard pushed to realise that it was the same singer. He is especially impressive as Satan as he descends to a low E? in the temptation scene. Last, but by no means least, Robert William Blake (Jesus as a boy) imbues the part with a quiet authority, displaying a beautiful delicacy in his delivery, and a full understanding of the music. London Voices sing with real gravitas – whether in meditative mode or when screaming for blood. How could they not when they were trained by a man - Terry Edwards - who, I have said this before, is the best choral trainer in London. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is with Blake all the way, giving their all, especially when allowed music to themselves. The orchestration is magnificent, with some eloquent moments for the harp. Blake brings out all the voices with great clarity. Michael Ponder’s production is a real asset, for the sound is big, yet even in the loudest episodes everything is clear and precise. There are also passages of such breathtaking pianissimo that one is on the edge of one’s seat. The sound is the best I have ever heard from Naxos. All in all, this is one of the very best CDs it has been my pleasure to hear and report upon.
And we haven’t finished, for as a, very generous, coupling we have the Four Songs of the Nativity
for chorus and brass. These are delightful settings of texts taken from Mediaeval English Verse (Penguin Books). Although not easy to perform, they make a lovely set of alternative carols if not of the community singing type. Ranging from devotional to racy this work makes a good conclusion to a very special disk. Choirs looking for new repertoire need look no further. Here are two works which can communicate easily and make a real impression on the audience. A very good booklet, with full texts, completes an issue which should be in every collection. This music is far too good to miss.