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Richard BLACKFORD (b.1954) Voices of exile (2001) [60.36]
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo), Gregory Kunde (tenor), Gerald Finley (baritone)
Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/David Hill
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 20-22 April 2005 NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6264 [60.36]
Oscar Wilde was contemptuous of artistic works that had a moral purpose: “No artist has ethical sympathies”, he observed in his preface to The picture of Dorian Gray; “an ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.” Like many of Wilde’s aphorisms this is only fitfully true; and in the case of large-scale works for chorus and orchestra it is almost never true at all. Excluding works with Biblical or religious texts, the oratorios and cantatas that have been written over the years have nearly always had some extra-musical purpose, be it philosophical, didactic or political. For many years these works tended to reinforce the social mores of their period – the upper classes were after all the only patrons who had the ready funds to underwrite the considerable costs of performance.
With the advent of the twentieth century what one might call the ‘protest’ oratorio began to emerge. Delius’s atheistic Requiem was not well received as a meditation on the First World War in the 1920s; his amanuensis Eric Fenby, a staunch Christian, described it as “profoundly depressing”. Foulds’ World Requiem soon faded from the repertory. Tippett’s A child of our time took some time to take its place in the repertory. However, with Britten’s War Requiem in 1962 the idea of a choral work which sought to make the audience rebel against prevailing social conventions became instantly well established. There have been many works since which have sought to plough the same furrow.
Richard Blackford’s Voices of exile stands firmly within this relatively recent tradition. Unlike the Britten War Requiem, or other modern works like those by Karl Jenkins, it has no truck whatsoever with any religious texts – whether as ironical counterpoint as in Britten, or as consolation as in Jenkins. It belongs rather in the same category as Michael Berkeley’s early oratorio Or shall we die? with its specifically secular emphasis on the need for peace in the face of man’s inhumanity to man. The texts are drawn from poems and texts on the subject of refugees drawn from sources all over the world, framed by two poems of Tony Harrison. Like David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus it also makes use of taped voices. This could make for a somewhat bitty impression but in the event the overarching theme lends a unity to the work even when the individual contributions might seem disjointed. The very opening, with Tony Harrison’s Poetry after Auschwitz given a full-blooded treatment with Gregory Kunde declaiming the text heroically over surging chorus and orchestra and a solo violin - beautifully played. The review by BBC Music Magazine at the time of the original release in 2005 described this passage as “dramatically lumpish and melodically anonymous”. I fail to see this as justified by the music itself any more than the “thinness” later on of which Terry Blain complained. The Bengali folksong on tape, which follows, is woven into this texture with some very beautiful choral writing. This high standard is maintained afterwards in music of real dramatic involvement and passion, for example in the heartfelt setting of the line “How can I bear to look back?” during Part Two (track 6), sung with warmth by Gerald Finley.
The mezzo does not enter until the beginning of Part Three (track 9) but Catherine Wyn-Rogers has all the richness of tone that one would expect from this excellent artist – and her diction is superb too. In the succeeding duet between tenor and baritone (track 10) the parallels with Britten’s War Requiem are immediately apparent; although the rather melodramatic colloquy lacks the still meditation of Wilfred Owen’s Strange meeting. The quotation of Blake’s Jerusalem - with a direct ‘lift’ from Parry’s setting - has a superb dramatic frisson. There is a similar melodramatic element in the baritone solo which opens Part Four (track 12) but this is less effective despite Finley’s involvement in the text. This is a momentary lapse soon redeemed by the Macedonian folksong setting which follows it. There the chorus form a beautiful background to the recorded voice of Tanya Czarovska (track 13) and the solo violin playing in duet with Wyn-Rogers (track 14) – the player really deserves a credit in the booklet. All the soloists are united in the final section of Part Five. This is before the Epilogue (track 17) which provides a thrilling close to the work as a whole in the setting of the poem Daughter of the desert by Antonio Joaquim Marques. This has a sense of ecstasy which reminds this listener of Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi. After that the final setting of Tony Harrison (track 18) provides a heart-rending coda.
The performance boasts three distinguished soloists who give of their very best throughout. The well-integrated taped contributions add to the impact of the whole. The chorus, who presumably learned the score specifically for this recording (the première was given by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, who had commissioned the work), sing with involvement, strength and security.
The recording is clear and reveals all the detailed strands in both choral and orchestral lines without lacking resonance. Commendably this reissue from Nimbus supplies the listener with full texts - translated where appropriate - and the original booklet note written in 2005 by the composer.
If this reissue helps to establish a work which seems to have been considerably underestimated at the time of its original release, it will perform a real service.