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ClassicsOnline Home » BLAKE, H.: Violin Sonata / Piano Quartet / Penillion / Jazz Dances (Mitchell, Rothstein, Essex, Willison, Blake)
In addition to his distinguished career as a pianist and conductor, Howard Blake is a popular and prolific composer who has received an OBE for services to music. Besides film scores (which include the extraordinarily successful and popular The Snowman), choral, orchestral and instrumental works, ballets and opera, his output includes much chamber music. This disc presents world première recordings of four important works; the virtuosic Violin Sonata, the hauntingly beautiful Penillion, the sunshine-filled Piano Quartet with its touching slow movement, and the Jazz Dances, which, in the composer’s words, ‘pay mischievous but affectionate homage to the rhythmic intricacies of popular dance forms’.
By Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency
By Julian Haylock
By David Denton
‘Howard Blake, the British composer of music for the animated film The Snowman’ could well be the misguided description for one of the UK’s most versatile musicians.
So popular has that work become, it is in danger of deflecting attention from his prodigious amount of music for television and films, and of his time spent as a ‘serious’ composer. His portfolio includes violin and piano concertos, ballet, opera, orchestral works, and chamber music, four of his most important scores in this latter genre now receiving their world premiere recording. Stimulated by the violinist, Madeleine Mitchell, he was prompted to complete a Violin Sonata began thirty-five years earlier, the three movements full of outgoing happiness, Mitchell’s bright and silvery tone being ideally suited. She gives an equally attractive account of Penillion, a work originally scored for violin and harp. The title is Welsh, and refers to the ability of a singer to improvise against a set melody on the harp, a feat hotly contested in Welsh music competitions. Here it is played by violin and piano, the violin taking the part of the singer, the score fully written out. The final work, Jazz Dances, is also in a version for violin and piano having appeared in many guises. You will go around humming the Cha-Cha for days, the work attractive but commercially lightweight. Mitchell is excellently partnered throughout by Blake, a fact that seals their benchmark status. Amid this recent recording is a 1974 performance of his Piano Quartet, originally made as a demo disc. Blake was joined by a string trio of Jack Rothstein, Kenneth Essex and Peter Willison, at the time well-know principals of the major London orchestras. Three bubbling movements surround a very attractive Lento of which Blake has expressed his particular affection. I hope Naxos continue their Blake association with the Violin Concerto, a score I much admired when reviewing its concert premiere.
Howard Blake (b. 1938)
Music for Piano and Strings
Howard Blake is mentioned in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians as having ‘achieved fame as pianist, conductor and composer’. He grew up in Brighton singing lead rôles as a boy soprano, at eighteen winning a piano scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Harold Craxton and Howard Ferguson. Over an intensely active career he has written music in virtually every genre: concert works include a Piano Concerto commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra for the thirtieth birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales, in which he also featured as soloist: a Violin Concerto to celebrate the centenary of the City of Leeds; a cantata to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Organization; largescale choral/orchestral works such as Benedictus and The Passion of Mary and instrumental music such as Lifecycle, 24 pieces for solo piano. His success with childrens’ music, especially the animated film The Snowman, may have tended to overshadow other work, but has in no way hindered his prolific output.
Howard Blake writes: ‘As a student at the Royal Academy of Music I formed a duo with violinist Miles Baster, performing concerts of the standard repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven, Franck, Fauré, Brahms, Ravel and so on. I adored this repertoire and the extraordinarily direct and passionate music that the combination of these two instruments engenders. Miles suggested that I compose a sonata, but I had produced nothing more than a sketch when he left London to found the Edinburgh String Quartet and our partnership came to an abrupt end. I changed direction, turning towards playing, arranging, composing and conducting music for the media and becoming unbelievably busy and in demand. By the early 1970s I had overdone it. I retreated to a watermill in Sussex, determined to work again at the basic pillars of harmony, counterpoint and form and to develop further my own style of classical composition. I began to play chamber music again with violinist Jack Rothstein and cellist Peter Willison, who asked if I would write him a cello piece. I responded with Diversions for cello and piano. Jack asked if I would write a Violin Sonata, and I wrote the first version of the one here recorded. Jack then suggested that the viola player Ken Essex might join us if I wrote a Piano Quartet and I (somewhat foolhardily) turned down Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in order to work at it. But we were pleased with the outcome and a concert of the three new works was given, followed by what we all felt to be an inspired demo recording of the Piano Quartet, here on professional release for the first time. I later expanded and orchestrated Diversions into a concerto with the help of Maurice Gendron and a fine recording of it was made by Robert Cohen and the Philharmonia, but I was not satisfied with the Violin Sonata and withdrew it from circulation.
In February 2007 I found myself conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Edinburgh and the cellist from the Edinburgh Quartet, Mark Bailey, who was playing in the orchestra, approached me and we reminisced a little. Miles had spent his entire life playing with the quartet and had died in rather sad circumstances and we talked about some sort of musical tribute to him. During last summer I dug out the material from all those years before and looked at it again. Suddenly I conceived a new opening and this set me on the path of extensively and ferociously revising the entire piece. Whilst writing I constantly remembered Miles’s virtuosity and artistic punctiliousness, his views on music and his extreme conscientiousness as regards to markings, tempo and dynamics. I marked it: ‘Dedicated to the memory of Miles Baster’. The slow movement Lento might seem to have a requiem-like quality, although the work is of a virtuoso nature throughout. I can only hope that he might have approved. It would have meant a great deal to me.
Penillion was another of Jack’s requests. He arrived at the mill one day in 1975 with Annabel Etkind, a beautiful eighteen-year old harpist, who wanted a piece for them to play at a Grosvenor Square banquet. I thought: ‘Where would one encounter such a combination? Perhaps a Welsh Eisteddfodd?’ The name Penillion is the Welsh custom of singing (or playing) improvised verses on a given theme to a melody either well-known or taught by the harper. I composed my own folk-like and (what I thought to be) Welsh-like theme and seven variations on it. Years later when working on my Violin Concerto with the Berlin-based violinist Christiane Edinger I arranged the harp part for piano: ‘One listened to this concisely constructed work with its astonishingly inspired melody as if the name of the composer were not Howard Blake but Antonín Dvořák. The Slavic-sounding tonality of this poignant piece makes one curious to hear the Violin Concerto that Blake has composed for Christiane Edinger.’ (Berliner Tagespiegel). This is the first recording of that version, created for her in 1994.
The deeply reflective E major slow movement (Lento) of the Piano Quartet has always been particularly dear to me. I wrote it one beautiful spring afternoon in 1974 at Highbridge Mill, with sun streaming through the window and total silence. It begins with a major third repeated on the piano acting as a bell-like accompaniment to three statements of a four-note rising phrase, first on violin then imitated by viola and cello. When I was writing the Piano Concerto some sixteen years later it occurred to me that its first movement also revolved around a four-note theme and that this Lento could be further developed in an orchestral concerto context. It is transposed to F major rather than E and the theme is first stated by the piano soloist, yet the special atmosphere remains. I can never decide which version I prefer.
Jazz Dances was the only piece on this album not suggested by Jack Rothstein. Sussex pianist and conductor Janet Canetty-Clarke had attended the first performance of the Piano Quartet and determined to build an entire choral and instrumental concert of my recent music around it. She got things rolling by commissioning a cantata, The Song of Saint Francis, for her own choir, the Ditchling Choral Society, and invited us to play Penillion and the Piano Quartet. However the concert wasn’t quite long enough and she wondered if I had a piece for two pianos. I didn’t and there was very little time but I ‘dashed off’ these little dances and performed them with her to hearty applause. They are not really ‘jazz’ but, as I wrote in the programme-note: ‘pay mischievous but affectionate homage to the rhythmic intricacies of popular dance forms’. I called them Dances for Two Pianos, later scoring them for orchestra as Concert Dances. In 2001 I created a string solo version for the cellist Martin Rummel giving them the more apt title Jazz Dances from which this violin version derives.
In a Sony sleeve-note of 1991 music critic Christopher Palmer wrote: ‘What is particularly unusual in Howard Blake’s case (as a composer) is that, far from disowning his alter ego, the kind of musician he was and the kind of music he produced in the first ten years of his professional life, he has found in them the mainspring of a remarkable personal renaissance. Much of the raw material of his most significant recent works derives from this source, but so refined, processed, enhanced, even sublimated, as to be scarcely recognizable.’ ‘Jazz Dances’ clearly demonstrates the beginning of this curious alchemy.
I met Madeleine Mitchell last December at a London music publisher’s Christmas party and she asked me if I had written anything for violin. I told her I had just finally completed a violin sonata after about 35 years and typically she said: ‘When can we try it?’ We got together and gradually explored the other works now featured on this album. I realised much to my surprise that there was in existence more than seventy minutes of music for piano and strings. Even more surprising was the fact that all of that music had begun its journey during the same time slot, from 1973 to 1976. We approached Naxos who were very supportive of the project and we set about learning how to play the music. In some cases I undertook considerable revisions of both violin and piano parts so that now all the pieces are eminently playable (if not exactly easily playable). I cannot thank Madeleine enough for her enthusiasm and immense hard work in putting this together and I hope, as she does, that it will give as much pleasure to those who get to hear it as we got from playing it.
Howard Blake is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and in 1994 received the OBE for services to music.
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BLAKE, H.: Violin Sonata / Piano Quartet / Penilli...