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Though now a couple of years out of date, our survey of Howard Blake's music on CD sets this new Naxos release of chamber string works in context.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 attractive music.
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 sičcle 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 Janįček'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 Dvorįk 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.
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Coherent if restless … serious as well as exciting and often quite beautiful.