Howard BLAKE (b.1938)
Spieltrieb, for string quartet, op.594 (2008) [14:10]
A Month in the Country, op.611 (2010) [13:53]
Leda and the Swan, op.249a (1977) [9:37]
String Trio, op.199 (1975/2010) [11:41]
Walking in the Air (from: The Snowman Suite for string
quartet, op.615) (2010) [6:24]
Edinburgh Quartet (Tristan Gurney, Philip Burrin (violins), Michael
Beeston (viola), Mark Bailey (cello))
rec. Reid Hall, Edinburgh, 5-7 June 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572688 [55:44]
Though now a couple of years out of date, our survey
of Howard Blake's music on CD sets this new Naxos release
of chamber string works in context. Missing from that list is
the Naxos disc of Blake's choral masterpiece The Passion
of Mary op.577, released last year and reviewed here.
In his notes, Blake describes the opening of Spieltrieb
as "furious, if not thoroughly bad-tempered", but
if that was his intention, he failed - the first few minutes
are rather a mixture of nervous tension and melancholy. Blake
explains his choice of title, translated as "urge to play",
in rather rambling fashion, arriving at some questionable propositions,
but his basic plan was to "write 'whatever came into my
head' and to allow the form to go wherever it felt like going."
As a result there is a bit of everything in the fourteen minutes,
from a four-part canon to a cradle song, from a pizzicato dance
to a set of variations to a quote from Blake's own Passion
of Mary. Somehow, however, all those disparate chunks hang
together in a coherent if restless whole that is, ironically,
no kind of play, managing to sound serious and crafted as well
as exciting and often quite beautiful.
A Month in the Country started life as a score for strings for
the now long-forgotten 1986 Pat O'Connor film of the same name.
Blake then made a concert suite of it, again for strings, and
finally arranged it for string quartet for this recording last
year. The film is about "two former soldiers coming to
terms with the horrors of the Great War amidst the serenity
of the English countryside", a description which gives
a good idea of what to expect from this suite: a blend of pastoralism,
nostalgia, tragedy, and hope - not to mention some straightforwardly
There is a minor problem with the editing of some of the tracks
in A Month in the Country, with the 'topping and tailing'
cut extremely fine, leaving the listener sometimes with the
impression that a track ending has been faded down a fraction
too precipitately, and that the next track starts a millisecond
or two after the music does.
Leda and the Swan takes its title from the 1924 poem
by W.B. Yeats, itself based on the rather sordid Greek myth.
Fortunately there is no rape scene as such in Blake's work,
and in some ways the music is barely dark enough to depict any
depravity. Again Blake's description, that the "musical
style of the quartet hints at the fin de siècle symbolist
atmosphere surrounding Maeterlinck, a half-veiled world of shadows,
languour and sensuality", seems at odds with the notes
as played. Though the opening chords are briefly reminiscent
of another Swan, that of Sibelius's Tuonela, the rest
of the piece sounds like a movement from a late string quartet
by Beethoven communicated to the world by spirits through Janáček's
pen: impressive, in a word.
The String Trio dates from the same period as Blake's
Piano Quartet (see review),
but having shamefully lain unperformed for more than three decades,
Blake revised the work last year for this recording. Like the
Quartet, it is stylistically and stylishly 'lost in time',
looking back with elegance and warmth to the great string trios
of both ends of the 19th century.
Walking in the Air is a tune that very likely has good
and bad connotations for Blake - good, because it has undoubtedly
made him a fair bit of money; bad, because it has overshadowed
the 600-plus other works he has published. This version for
string quartet, which is pared down from an original Snowman
Suite written in 1993 for a Classic FM compilation disc,
of all things, and itself based on the famous film score, brings
only good news for the listener - that lovely tune sounds more
gorgeous than ever and, although it is probably impossible not
to hear that lyric, there is no Aled Jones.
All the music on this disc is self-evidently written for listeners.
Absolutely everyone brought up on Haydn, Beethoven or Dvorák
will enjoy these works - Naxos could almost make that a "money
back guarantee". But Blake's chamber music is not in any
way dumbed down, in the style of minimalism or an anaemic Hans
Zimmer- or John Barry-style film score: this is full-blooded
music full of style, wit and imagination. Throw in the fact
that these are all world premiere recordings, skilfully and
passionately performed by the Edinburgh Quartet - recently celebrating
their 50th anniversary - and the music lover has no choice but
to buy this disc, despite even the minor technical flaws and
rather ungenerous playing time.
Sound quality is high, though there is some background noise
of the kind generated by electrical interference; in the quietest
sections it can be quite noticeable, at least through headphones.
The CD booklet is informative, though it has one or two peculiarities:
the notes are ostensibly written by Howard Blake, and signed
by him, yet about halfway through there is a sudden and permanent
switch to the third person ("In 1986 Howard Blake was commissioned
to..."). Also, Naxos's legendary minute font is now complemented
by minuscule photographs, it seems: there are two in the booklet
of the Edinburghs and Blake that might as well be of someone
else, so small are the faces. The photo of Blake in particular
looks like it was taken at a 1960s school cheese and wine party.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk