Howard BLAKE (b.1938)
The Passion of Mary, op.577 (2006) [57:21]
Four Songs of the Nativity, op.415 (1990) [19:04]
Patricia Rozario (soprano); Robert William Blake (treble); Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor); David Wilson-Johnson (bass-baritone)
London Voices/Terry Edwards
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Howard Blake
rec. 12-13 August 2009, Studio 1, Abbey Road, London. DDD
English and Latin texts and English translations included
NAXOS 8.572453 [76:25]
Just before Christmas I read an interesting article in The Sunday Telegraph by the journalist, Michael White. Under the headline “A seasonal hit can really lay a musician low” he lamented the fact that some composers, who write excellent music in all sorts of genres, find that the quality of the rest of their output is eclipsed if they write a Christmas ‘hit’. The Christmas piece gets done to death and almost everything else gets ignored, very unfairly. Inevitably, the name of John Rutter came up but a principal focus of Mr White’s attention - and sympathy - was Howard Blake. He is known pretty much the world over for the music he wrote for The Snowman and, financially, he’s probably done very nicely out of that - and rightly so. However, money isn’t everything, as they say; a bit of recognition helps too and so far as the broadcasters and critics are concerned, he might as well have not written anything else. Yet, if you look at the opus numbers in the heading to this review, there’s the proof of Howard Blake’s musical fertility.
All of which prompts consideration of this CD from Naxos. Its appearance was greeted ecstatically by my colleague, the late Bob Briggs (review) and I can understand why because here, in the shape of The Passion of Mary, we have a fine addition to the English choral repertoire. Furthermore, with one possible caveat which I’ll come to in a moment, this is a work which sounds eminently within the scope of a decent amateur choral society. The music is accessible - though there’s no hint of dumbing down - and, as such ought to have audience appeal.
Blake’s idea is an original one, which is something else that appeals to me. The first thought was that he should write a Stabat Mater but his ideas changed and instead what we have here is a work that tells the story of the life and death of Christ from the standpoint of his mother, Mary. I don’t know of any other piece of music that does this and I think it’s a highly imaginative concept - and I may as well say right away that Blake carries out his concept extremely successfully: the design of the work is strong, as is the music to which he carries out the design.
The Passion of Mary is cast in four sections. The first, which is by far the longest, takes the story from the Annunciation through to the childhood of Christ. The second section, from which the character of Mary is absent, considers elements from the life of Christ up to and including his Crucifixion. The third section is a setting, in Latin, of Stabat Mater for the soprano (Mary) and chorus and the concluding section is devoted to the Resurrection and a jubilant setting of Salve Regina.
Throughout the piece Blake’s music is highly effective and well suited to his chosen texts. I like some little touches such as his decision that Mary’s first, apprehensive words during the Annunciation are spoken rather than sung - and the way Patricia Rozario speaks those words is absolutely ideal, the inflection just right. Also highly effective is his charming setting of William Blake’s ‘A Cradle Song’ to anchor the Nativity element in Part I. In sacred music when a soloist takes the role of Christ it’s very often allocated to a baritone or bass. Here, instead, we have a tenor. Apart from anything else that’s perhaps a pragmatic decision given the dialogue between Jesus and Satan at the start of Part II, where Satan is sung by a low voice. I find the use of a tenor for Christ works well, not least in conveying the eagerness of a young man.
Mary is portrayed, unsurprisingly, by a soprano. I understand that Howard Blake had the voice of Patricia Rozario specifically in mind when writing this role. As we know, Miss Rozario is possessed of a phenomenal vocal range, which has been exploited by a number of composers, not least John Tavener. However, this brings me to the one reservation I have about the piece. On a good number of occasions, especially in the setting of the Magnificat that occurs in Part I and, to a lesser extent in the Stabat Mater, Blake writes a line for his soloist that includes leaps into the stratosphere. I’m sure this is intended to convey ecstasy, especially in the Magnificat, but purely as a matter of personal taste I feel this is overdone. In fact, these leaps stick out rather too much and, despite all Miss Rozario’s artistry come close to sounding ugly. I wonder if there’s a practical point here: it may not be easy for choirs to find a soprano soloist with a comparable range and I do hope this won’t inhibit performances.
The tenor’s big moment comes in Part II with a lengthy and demanding solo, which is lightly accompanied. The second half of the solo is an enunciation of The Beatitudes and it’s noticeable - and very fitting, I think - that Blake moves into a simpler style of music at this point. Richard Edgar-Wilson acquits himself very well here and in everything else that he does and David Wilson-Johnson is authoritative and characterful, as you’d expect. Despite my reservation over the high-lying parts of her line Patricia Rozario’s characterisation of Mary sounds well-nigh ideal throughout. With excellent contributions from London Voices and the RPO this performance under the composer must be counted as definitive in every respect.
The fairly substantial filler is a work written for the Bach Choir and Sir David Willcocks. I enjoyed these Four Songs of the Nativity very much indeed. They are settings of four medieval English poems for chorus and brass group. The brass ensemble is selectively employed and the writing for the brass strikes me as colourful and imaginative. Without getting in the way of the singers the contributions of the instruments are telling and add an extra dimension at just the right points. The chorus parts sound to be really well written for voices. These are accessible and consistently interesting settings which would make an excellent addition to the Christmas programmes of enterprising choirs.
I think Bob Briggs was right to welcome this disc; I can understand why it grabbed his imagination. The music is accessible, enjoyable and rewarding. Not only were these attractive pieces worth recording in their own right but the disc will have served a further important purpose if it encourages choirs to take up either of the works in question.
see also review by Bob Briggs
Two attractive and important works by Howard Blake in definitive performances.
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