SPIELTRIEB op.594 (September 2008)

string quartet in one movement
Published by: Highbridge Music Limited
Commissioned by: The Edinburgh String Quartet to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2010
Duration: 16 mins
First Performance: Premiere given by The Edinburgh Quartet, Queen's Hall Edinburgh, 19th February 2010

Sheet Music Available
Full score for sale
Study score for sale
Instrumental parts for sale
Full score for hire
Study score for hire
Instrumental parts for hire
Recorded by The Edinburgh Quartet in June 2010.
Recordings Available
String Quartets - Spieltrieb, Leda and the Swan, A Month in the Country, String Trio
Released: 2011
Recorded: 5th June 2010
Artists: Edinburgh Quartet - Tristan Gurney, Philip Burrin, Michael Beeston, Mark Bailey
Available from: Amazon UK Amazon US Naxos Records

Released on Naxos 26th June. Naxos 8.572688

Movements

  • 1: Moderato risoluto
  • 2: Lento espressivo
  • 3: Presto
  • 4: Lento triste
  • 5: Allegretto a giocoso
  • 6: Moderato piu sereno
  • 7: Presto
  • 8: Grave

Notes

‘Spieltrieb’ – a string quartet in one movement (duration 16 minutes) Composer: Howard Blake 2008 Commissioned by The Edinburgh Quartet to celebrate their 50th Anniversary (1960-2010)

 An article written by the composer for Musical Opinion June 2009

My relationship with the Edinburgh Quartet goes back to 1960, the year it was formed, when as a piano student at the Royal Academy I gave a concert in the Leith Hall with violinist Miles Baster. As a result of this concert Miles was presented with the great opportunity of creating a brand-new string quartet and he devoted virtually his whole life to it, leaving behind a great legacy of performances and recordings. I was much honoured to be asked to compose a work to celebrate the 50th anniversary and thought a lot about what form it should take. Beethoven has been much associated with them and is often considered the weightiest of quartet creators, with the last quartets seeming to move away from sonata form into some sort of freer space where he seems to be playing with ideas more than  working with them. I remembered the remark attributed to Mozart when accused of not taking music seriously enough: ‘The verb that qualifies music is to play’. Beethoven’s near-contemporary, Schiller, in fact developed a theory that there is within all of us an ‘urge to play’ and this urge if followed can take our minds and ideas to the highest possible level. Present theories in regard to ‘lateral thinking’ are saying the same thing. Schiller called it ‘Spieltrieb’ and it is by no means impossible that Beethoven was aware of it. I decided to write ‘whatever came into my head’ and to allow the form to go wherever it felt like going. The beginning is furious, if not thoroughly bad-tempered. (moderato risoluto) Where to go next? Straight to a slow and poignant canon in four parts (lento espressivo). How boring, what about some furious fun and high spirits (Presto). It has to stop for a breather. Out of nowhere comes a sort of cradle song with a very high harmonic on the first violin (lento triste), but its innocence doesn’t last and a feeling of fear develops. Enough of that, here’s a little D major dance played pizzicato (Moderato a giocoso). Against the dance the cello plays a fast reiterated note almost like a drum - where can that take us? Amazingly we burst back into the bad-tempered opening on full throttle, violins doubling at the octave and fierce rhythms in viola and cello at the tenth (Moderato appassionato). It seems absolutely logical and somehow absorbs our poignant canon into it as well (Moderato piu sereno). It comes to a second point of repose and half-way through the piece, but it’s definitely not the end. I hear a fast, insistent leaning semitone idea (Presto) and feel it needs virtuoso variations against it for each player – cello, second violin, viola, first violin, whose variation is in G sharp minor and ferocious! But it slows down- and comes to a third point of repose. And what comes out of that? Surprisingly the cradle song, now very serious and in B flat minor. It feels that it must go to D flat major and Lo! And Behold it turns into an instrumental transmogrification of the nativity song from my oratorio ‘The Passion of Mary’, seeming utterly inevitable and moving to an ending of complete serenity.

A  preview performance by the Edinburgh Quartet took place at Alfriston Summer Music on July 29th in a programme celebrating two other anniversaries (Haydn’s 200th  deathday and Howard Blake’s 70th birthday). The world-premiere of ‘Spieltrieb’ took place at the Edinburgh Quartet’s 50th Anniversary Concert in The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh on 19th February 2010.

 

 

 

Performances

15th July 2016
- 6th August 2016
Quartet de corda com jubilo, Baix Camp, Tarragona (Consell Comarcal del Baix Camp and Comaigua festival) President: Joaquim Calatayud Casals

MUSIC BY HOWARD BLAKE

STRING QUARTETS PLAYED BY THE QUARTET DE CORDA CUM JUBILO (15, 16, 17 JULY)

' A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY'

'SPIELTRIEB'  (WITH QUARTETS BY SHOSTAKOVICH AND BORODIN)

 TRIOS FOR FLUTE , CLARINET AND PIANO (5 AND 6 AUGUST)

  TRIO FOR FLUTE CLARINET AND PIANO op.25 (January 1964)
A Trio In Three Movements derived from the music of Howard's film 'A few
days'
Movements1: Allegretto  2: Andante - Waltz - Andante 3: Allegro Assai

 SUITE: THE DUELLISTS op.603
An arrangement of music from the Ridley Scott's film 'The Duellists'

  INVOCATION  op.601 (June 2009) Concert piece in one movemen

 PENNILLION  op.600 The and variations

From the piano Music Album "Lifecycle", Mrs. Liana Baronaite chooses some of its pieces to  be played as an introduction for the concert.

OTHER PIECES BY FAURE, SAINT-SAENS, MARTINU AND RAVEL

ARS AUREA SONORA (Jordi Borràs Gelonch, manager)
C/St. Vicenç n7 2nd  43392 CASTELLVELL DEL CAMP (TARRAGONA) SPAIN

21st August 2014 Mizuki Horikoshi, Hitomi Inujima, Kesari Pundarika, Anastaya Svinyakova, British Isles Music Festival, Ardingly College
17th October 2011

The Edinburgh Quartet celebrated its 50th anniversary by commissioning a quartet with the title 'Spieltrieb' ("the urge to play"), given its first performance in the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on February 19th 2010 and since recorded on Naxos along with four other new works. On Monday 17th October they will be playing on BBC Radio 3's 'In Tune' programme.

27th February 2010 Edinburgh String Quartet, Glasgow University 6pm with an introductory talk by the composer

'Spieltrieb' was played in a special additional 'pre-concert' performance. The main concert at 7.30 was given by the Kelvin Ensemble who also played a work of Howard Blake, the 'Diversions for marimba and orchestra' played magnificently by soloist Heather Corbett.

25th February 2010 Edinburgh Quartet, Aberdeeen University 7.30
19th February 2010 Edinburgh String Quartet, The Queen's Hall Edinburgh

The premiere of this work commissioned by the quartet to celebrate their 50th anniversary. (In 1960 Howard gave a chamber music recital at the Leith Hall in Edinburgh with violinist Miles Baster who was then asked to form the quartet and become its founder and leader.)

29th July 2009 The Edinburgh String Quartet, Alfriston Summer Music

Preview performance

Reviews


This collection of chamber music for strings opens with Spieltrieb (2008), a string quartet that deals with the idea of ''the urge to play'' in music, which the composer explores in what amounts to a 14-minute compositional improvisation. Pleasantly tonal. it's a stream-of-consciousness elaboration of a string of unassuming ideas. ending with a lovely nativity song...

Allen Gimbel, American Record Guide, 1/11/2011


Naxos has released two CDs with the chamber music of Howard Blake (b. 1938), a well-known pianist, conductor, and film composer in Great Britain. Some of the agreeable melodies show their pedigree from the world of popular music, in which Blake writes film scores and jazz, but the classical treatment of them is accomplished and very appealing. This is particularly so in the case of his string quartet fantasy, “Spieltrieb.” It is accompanied on a new Naxos CD (8.57688) by a string quartet version of the film score to “A Month in the Country,” the ballet music from “Leda and the Swan,” String Trio, Op. 199, and a string quartet version of “Walking in the Air.” This is all immediately likable music.

The older of the two CDs (Naxos 8.572083) contains the Violin Sonata “Penillion” for violin and piano, Piano Quartet, and Jazz Dances for violin and piano. Blake’s engaging melodiousness lies somewhere between Dvorak and salon music. Certainly, “Penillion” has the warmth of Dvorak. I suppose that one reaction to these works might be slight condescension due to the popular aspect of their melodies; the other reaction, which is mine, is simply to appreciate this very easy-to-enjoy music. Quite surprisingly, considering that some of them go back to 1974, all of these works are receiving their world premiere recordings. The string quartet music is played most engagingly by the Edinburgh Quartet, and the various soloists on the second CD are equally fine.

Robert R. Reilly, Catholic News Agency (USA), 27/10/2011


Blake’s lovely pastoral music for A Month in the Country won him the British Film Institute’s Anthony Asquith Award for Musical Excellence. In 1992 Blake created a suite for string orchestra from his film score which he later transcribed most effectively for string quartet. The music speaks eloquently of the healing balm—the serenity of the English countryside—experienced by the two soldiers who had suffered the horrors of the Great War. The opening Idyll is a tranquil evocation of a sunlit peaceful countryside, all still except for the warbling of birds: upper divided strings tremolando. The brief second movement is a march with unfeeling, remorseless rhythms as the soldiers march blindly to their fate. The central Elegy: Adagio

The curiously named Spieltrieb (Schiller’s term for play) is something of a musical game, Blake deciding to write ‘whatever came into my head’ and then allowing the material to go ‘wherever it felt like going’. Consequently this is a spontaneous experiment in free-style music-making. It comprises music of very different moods stemming from a fast and furious and bad-tempered beginning that might be visualised as a train starting up: Blake’s train of thought? There follows melancholy, choleric, menacing (shades of Herrmann in Psycho mood) and merry music. Interestingly at one point, the first violin’s high harmonics accompany an innocent cradle song.

Blake’s expertly crafted and melodic String Trio opens with an Allegro energico. The movement begins sturdily then proceeds in good spirits with discussion and some good-humoured argument between the three players before the pace relaxes for them to indulge in a broad lyrical episode. The mood of the central Andante doloroso is exactly as its marking; the music poignant and a little Gaelic, and somehow transporting us back two or three centuries. The concluding Allegro capriccioso restores sunshine—a jolly dance.

Leda and the Swan derived from a commission for a ballet for The Queen’s Royal Silver Jubilee Celebrations. The ballet, The Court of Love, was premiered on 1 March 1977. From this ballet Blake produced music, for string quartet, for another TV ballet, Leda and the Swan. It was a somewhat erotically charged production which shocked some viewers. Blake’s music is arresting: poignant, mysterious, shadowy and has a sense of languor and sensuality.

The recital is rounded off with a beautiful and colourful arrangement of Blake’s well-known and well-loved ‘Walking in the Air’ theme from The Snowman.

Blake’s accessible music never fails to impress with its invention and generous melody.

Ian Lace, MusicWeb International, 24/10/2011


Virtually unknown here (in Germany) till now, the English composer Howard Blake (b. 1938), is so popular in his own country that he even wrote a piano concerto for Princess Diana. His success is grounded on a mastery of the widest possible range of musical genres, and this CD very graphically demonstrates this. His film music – here heard in transcriptions for string quartet for the first time - is attractive and colourful just as his ‘serious’ chamber music is refined and perfectly crafted - above all in the string quartet ‘Spieltrieb’. The interpretive artistry of the Edinburgh Quartet, veering from insistence to high-energy, makes it almost impossible for one not to like Blake’s music, even if sometimes its unabashed eclecticism might be seen to hover dangerously near the borders of ‘good taste’.

Robert Nemecek, Ensemble - the magazine for chamber music (Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Switzerland), 5/10/2011


While the opus numbers of the works on this disc point to Howard Blake as being a highly prolific composer, much of his work is music for film and television and has largely overshadowed his output in other genres. This new release presents five world-premiere recordings.

Blake's relationship with the Edinburgh Quartet stretches back to its formation in 1960 and much of the music on this disc has either been composed or arranged for the ensemble. In style it moves from a flirtation with hard-edged atonality in Spieltrieb, written in 2008, to the suite made last year from his highly attractive music for the film A Month in the Country. His interest in chamber music already included a String Trio from 1975 that lay dormant until this recording, and from three years later the television ballet Leda and the Swan, scored for string quartet.

Spieltrieb certainly tests the technical limits of the performers and the Edinburgh players respond with scrupulously clean intonation, crisp articulation and a perfectly-judged interplay between instruments. They pass through the many changes of mood and style with the same idiomatic feel and beauty of tone, and with Blake himself as the disc's producer the performances have authoritative bench-mark status. The CD is rounded off with an encore in the form of a quartet version of his famous song Walking in the Air. The recorded sound is excellent.

David Denton, The Strad, 30/9/2011


This CD doesn’t offer Howard Blake’s complete music for string quartet: since he has reached opus number six-hundred-and-something, I doubt there would be room for it. Still, it does present a conspectus of music in a genre for which he’s not known, and so will naturally stimulate curiosity and interest. It reveals a man bien dans sa peau, as the French say: a composer who doesn’t have to prove anything, who’s not aiming to be a second Shostakovich and so writes music to please rather than convince.

The opening Spieltrieb (Schiller’s “urge to play”) is a quarter-hour essay – indeed, Samuel Barber would have called it just that, Essay – in thematic integration: Blake’s booklet text rather makes light of the construction but though the argument isn’t concentrated, thematic recurrence does give it a satisfying logic. There’s a touch of Bartókian roughness at the outset, more than a little English pastoralism in relaxed moments, and the easy melodiousness underlines why Blake is such a successful composer for film and television.

The latter two characteristics come to the fore in the 14-minute suite from A Month in the Country, Blake’s Op. 611 (I wonder whether, like Czerny, he has four desks in his study, with a new work on each of them). The music was originally written for the 1986 film of that title, a six-movement suite for strings fashioned from the score in 1992 and this quartet version prepared – expressly for this disc – in 2010. As befits the subject – “two former soldiers coming to terms with the horrors of the Great War amidst the serenity of the English countryside,” as Blake’s note puts it – the lyrical grace of some of the music, where Howells and Vaughan Williams can be heard in the background, is tempered by an elegiac angst.

Leda and the Swan was written in 1977 for a TV ballet, the overt sexuality of which militated against presentation on stage (aren’t we old enough now?), and this is the first outing of the music as a concert work – another essay, not quite 10 minutes in duration, this time in a half-shadowed lyricism interrupted by active passages, some delicate, some more assertive.

The String Trio of 1975 likewise launches into an Allegro energico but its vigor is soon attenuated by the lyrical second subject; the central Andante doloroso is a thing of exquisite and gentle pain – with just a hint of Celtic inflection, it is perhaps the deepest music on the entire CD; and the concluding Allegro capriccioso dances the piece to its close.

‘Walking in the Air’ from The Snowman (1982) has become Blake’s signature tune – and has fed him very well, I expect: start singing it to almost anyone and they’ll pick it up and carry on. That kind of recognition is won by few composers, and it speaks volumes for Blake’s tune-smithery that he can write something which so captivates the ear of the public at large. This treatment of the melody had its origin in an 11-minute suite prepared in 1993 and is heard here in a six-and-a-half-minute version for the first time. Perhaps that explains the uneven construction: it has an extended introduction but once the tune has been caressed a few times, the music just stops.

The Edinburgh String Quartet plays with relaxed discipline, pushing the music where required and letting it unfold calmly as apposite. The sound is clear and warm. The booklet notes are signed by Blake himself but veer into the third person after a while which suggest they might be a composite – but another writer would have been less casual about the music: Blake writes about it in a refreshingly relaxed manner.

Martin Anderson, The Classical Review, 12/8/2011


Howard Blake made me take notice years ago with his dazzling score to the children's cartoon The Snowman. I have finally had the chance to hear more of his work via a couple of Naxos releases, one covered earlier on my Gapplegate Music Review Blog, the other up for discussion today. What I hear I like.

The one at hand covers some of his music for string quartet (and one for string trio) (Naxos 8.572688). The Edinburgh Quartet do the honors and they provide a nice balance between lyric expression and subtle shadings of string color. In many ways that's what Howard Blake's string chamber music is about.

His music has a modern tang to it and a kind of linear narrative quality so that you would never think you are hearing a piece by, say, Schumann or Brahms. Yet there is a very lyrical melodic strain to his compositions that put him apart from what is the norm out there today. The pieces ["Spieltrieb," "A Month in the Country," "Leda and the Swan," "String Trio, Op. 199," and "Walking in the Air"] include some early work (1975, 1977) and some recent (2008-2010). All have a pretty ravishing memorability about them.

The CD ends with the "Walking in the Air" sequence of The Snowman Suite and it is lovely to hear, especially if you are already familiar with the boy soprano, piano and orchestra version from the cartoon soundtrack. What it loses in sheer sensual beauty it gains with the paired-back clarity of the quartet.

This certainly is not the sort of cutting-edge modernism that can be had out there. It is a wonderful example of music from a composer who will give you a warm, almost folksy kind of feeling. a little like Vaughan-Williams in his more homespun mode.

If that sounds interesting to you, check this one out by all means.

Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Review, 11/8/2011


Howard Blake – Works for String Quartet (Naxos 8.572688): Blake was propelled to international success by his score for The Snowman and Walking in the Air finds a place on this recording alongside four more substantial works, including Spieltrieb. His gift for lyrical melody is matched by a capacity to establish mood and atmosphere within a few bars, notably in his arrangement of his film score A Month in the Country. The Edinburgh Quartet, which commissioned Spieltrieb, plays with a lovely warmth of phrase. DD

Yorkshire Post, 6/8/2011


Howard Blake is well-known for his superbly-effective film scores and this programme brings première string quartet recordings of the award-winning music for 'A Month in the Country' and the famous ' Walking in the Air' theme from 'The Snowman'. New discoveries emerge in the sensual and atmospheric ballet 'Leda and the Swan', and a specially revised 'String Trio'. One of Britains foremost and senior ensembles, The Edinburgh Quartet celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the commission of Blake's dramatic 'Spieltrieb'.

Naxos USA, 26/7/2011


Sometimes the etceteras, add-ons and couplings on a CD recording are mere fillers and side dishes to the main events. Sometimes, however, these elements are more significant than the centrepieces of the recording. Such is the case with the Edinburgh Quartet’s new recording of the music of Howard Blake, which includes the fascinating Spieltrieb, a beguiling piece where Blake has eschewed the structural conventions of composition and lets the music run free: by and large you don’t know what’s coming next. The disc also includes his well-known music for A Month In The Country and for Leda And The Swan. But the prize in the collection is Blake’s beautiful arrangement of the best-known piece he ever wrote: the theme song for The Snowman, which works its total magic in this version. It’s an add-on but, frankly, it’s the best thing in the collection; a superior composition that has lit up Christmas for generations young and old.....

Michael Tumelty, Glasgow Herald, 17/7/2011


Review of the Naxos CD released June 26 2011:

Howard Blake is best known for his film and ballet scores, several of which are included here as revised suites to accompany the newly-commisioned Spieltrieb. His music for the 1986 film A Month in the Country about recovering Great War casualties, is gently pastoral until darkness falls with the mix of pathos and terror in the third movement Elegy in stark contrast to the langorous sensuality of his ballet suite Leda and the Swan and the wistful Walking in the Air from The Snowman. There are affinities with, variously, Arvo Paart, Bernard Herrmann and Beethoven, and a successsion of emotionally-involving themes are skilfully negotiated by the Edinburgh Quartet.

Andy Gill, The Independent, 15/7/2011


Best known for his children's cartoon score, The Snowman, Howard Blake is a serious, prolific composer with more than 600 opus numbers to his credit. The title piece was composed for the Edinburgh String Quartet. Interlacing lyricism with sporadic rage, Spieltrieb exerts a fierce grip on the ear. The CD contains three other Blake pieces, ending with a discreet Snowman bonus.

Norman Lebrecht, La Scena Musicale, 15/7/2011


****
HOWARD Blake is much more than just the composer of the soundtrack to The Snowman.
This new release by the Edinburgh Quartet reveals a side to Blake that is considerably more interesting. The Spieltrieb for String Quartet (Op 594, no less) was written especially for the Edinburgh Quartet to celebrate its recent 50th anniversary.
It has all the natural drive and sequential predictability of Blake's more popular works, but with that comes a genuine poise and soulful intimacy, not to mention a supreme gift for silken instrumentation.
The same goes for A Month in the Country, transcribed from the full string orchestra version written for the film of that name featuring Colin Firth and Miranda Richardson.
There's more of the same, and inevitably a string quartet version of Walking in the Air.
Blake, it seems, will always be the man associated with an immortal Christmas cartoon.
KENNETH WALTON

Kenneth Walton, Scotsman (Classical), 11/7/2011


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 programme brings première string quartet recordings of the award-winning music for A Month in the Country and the famous Walking in the Air theme from The Snowman. New discoveries emerge in the sensual and atmospheric ballet Leda and the Swan, and a specially revised String Trio. One of Britains foremost and senior ensembles, The Edinburgh Quartet celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with the commission of Blakes dramatic Spieltrieb.

Amazon, 3/7/2011


A few years ago I was accompanist for a performance of a work by Howard Blake—a song cycle for children’s voices called All God’s Creatures, settings of poems about animals (by Rossetti, Hardy, Carroll, William Blake, Tennyson, etc.) that honors and celebrates the noble “creatures” with which we share the planet. It’s a wonderful piece—dramatic, humorous, exciting, with well-wrought melodies and excellent accompaniments that make characterful, colorful musical representations of the poetry. And listening to the music on this CD of chamber instrumental works confirms that Blake is quite good at this kind of “scenic” and “thematic” musical conceptualization, ideal for the world of film and television scoring, which Blake is well-known for.

Indeed, it’s difficult to listen to any of the works here, even the non-programmatic pieces, without some images coming to mind, or without thinking “movie-music”. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; in fact, this entire disc makes for a very pleasant hour of listening—and after all, the suite A Month in the Country was music for the film of the same name, Leda and the Swan was for television, and “Walking in the Air” for radio. Yet, even in the Trio and the Spieltrieb for String Quartet, which do not have a programmatic connection, we still are treated not to cohesive, formally worked out and fully developed thematic ideas and harmonic relationships, but rather to a series of nonetheless appealing themes and bits of themes, a dance rhythm here, a lullaby there, a “ferocious” outburst here, a canon there, strung together very cleverly and effectively—not structurally or developmentally the most sophisticated music, but nevertheless technically demanding of first-rate players.

And this quartet, for whose 50th anniversary the Spieltrieb was written, is fine indeed, the group’s present membership not only upholding the ensemble’s long-established artistic excellence, but managing the numerous thematic/rhythmic/tempo shifts with technical ease and overall cohesiveness, the entire recital imbued with a spirit of shared enjoyment among the players. This program not only opens the door for listening to more of Blake’s music (his Violin Sonata, Piano Quartet, and Passion of Mary are also available from this same label), but certainly initiates an order for more from the Edinburgh Quartet.

David Vernier, Classics Today, 1/7/2011


On music’s international scene Howard Blake has become known as the composer of the haunting melody Walking on Air from the children’s story, The Snowman. Born in the south of England, and educated at London’s Royal Academy of Music, he has worked in every genre, though much of his output has been in highly effective film scores frequently giving rise to works for the concert hall. A Month in the Country is a typical example, a five-movement string suite drawn from the film score score subsequently arranged for string quartet. Carrying an opus number of six hundred and eleven indicates his prolific catalogue, the present disc covering the the past thirty-five years, the earliest being a previously unperformed String Trio from 1975 and sets the scene for a composer wedded to tonality seen through twentieth century eyes. Even at this juncture we find his affinity with the ‘commercial’ world of the silver screen, its shifting moods dressed in an appealing garb. Two years later he wrote a short ballet score for television, Leda and the Swan. Its erotic nature and near nudity bringing such a shocked reaction that it has remained unperformed since then. Moving forward to 2008 for Spieltrieb, a word that translates into today’s term of ‘lateral thinking’, Blake comments that he did not write in any conventional quartet form but simply used whatever came into his mind. The result is in effect a rhapsody, rather more modern in its sonorities than is normal for Blake. We finally have, by way of a short encore, a quartet version of Walking on Air. All are here receiving their world premiere recordings, the Edinburgh Quartet patently enjoying the music in recorded sound that is exceptionally good.

David Denton, David's Review Corner, 27/6/2011


Byzantion
MusicWeb International, June 2011

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 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 Dvořák 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…

Byzantion, MusicWeb International, 26/6/2011


Naxos has released two CDs with the chamber music of Howard Blake (b. 1938), a well-known pianist, conductor, and film composer in Great Britain. Some of the agreeable melodies show their pedigree from the world of popular music, in which Blake writes film scores and jazz, but the classical treatment of them is accomplished and very appealing. This is particularly so in the case of his string quartet fantasy, “Spieltrieb.” It is accompanied on a new Naxos CD (8.57688) by a string quartet version of the film score to “A Month in the Country,” the ballet music from “Leda and the Swan,” String Trio, Op. 199, and a string quartet version of “Walking in the Air.” This is all immediately likable music.

The older of the two CDs (Naxos 8.572083) contains the Violin Sonata “Penillion” for violin and piano, Piano Quartet, and Jazz Dances for violin and piano. Blake’s engaging melodiousness lies somewhere between Dvorak and salon music. Certainly, “Penillion” has the warmth of Dvorak. I suppose that one reaction to these works might be slight condescension due to the popular aspect of their melodies; the other reaction, which is mine, is simply to appreciate this very easy-to-enjoy music. Quite surprisingly, considering that some of them go back to 1974, all of these works are receiving their world premiere recordings. The string quartet music is played most engagingly by the Edinburgh Quartet, and the various soloists on the second CD are equally fine.

2011


Review

by Stephen Eddins

Howard Blake might be classified as neo-Romantic (with the derogatory implications that the term sometimes carries) because of his gift for melody and the conservatism of his tonal harmonic language, which for the most part sounds comfortably situated in the English pastoralism of the first decades of the 20th century. But because of his absolute mastery of his craft and the fact that his musical ideas are so often really attractive, he seems to transcend that category. Most importantly, he sounds like a composer who is entirely at ease in his own skin; he is not trying to be anything other than what he is, and that gives his music an unselfconscious naturalness and spontaneity. Blake's 2008 string quartet Spieltraub (a term from Schiller meaning "the inclination to play") is a perfect example of his approach and the artfulness of his gift. He cites Mozart's comment that playing music is, after all, play, and the piece is a result of his letting himself just have fun writing whatever came into his head, without working to make it fit any standard form. What might have been a random-sounding, one-thing-after-another ramble works beautifully because Blake's instincts are so good that the piece feels organic and entirely satisfying. The other quartets, a suite from the film score, A Month in the Country, the ballet Leda and the Swan, and the String Trio have the same unforced, organic quality. The album concludes with Blake's quartet arrangement of his deservedly biggest hit, the evocative, luminous song "Walking in the Air" from the 1982 animated film The Snowman. The Edinburgh Quartet gives stalwart readings that are more than adequate but less than sublime. It performs well as an ensemble, but lacks the creamy tonal warmth and brilliant precision that are hallmarks of the highest level of quartet playing. In particular, the quiet, high-lying fade-outs that Blake is fond of at the ends of movements often sound shaky. He writes so beautifully for the instruments that the listener is left yearning to hear more sumptuous performances of this music. Naxos' sound is clean, clear, and present.

stephen eddins, all music, 2011


Howard Blake's Spieltrieb – especially commissioned for the occasion – is, by the composer's own admission, a free-flowing stream of consciousness, characterised by gentle melody, and linked as improvised narrative. Not all its good ideas get fully developed, giving it the feel of a work in progress.

Kenneth Walton, THE SCOTSMAN, 19/3/2010


In my experience, many from the older generation regard premieres with trepidation. That section of the audience must have been relieved at Howard Blake’s Spieltrieb, which proceeded through a series of playful sections and finished with a lush melodious episode. John Adams named his work Harmonielehre after Schoenberg’s book – in which Schoenberg claimed that tonality was dead. Alex Ross wrote that Adams’ piece said in essence ‘like hell it is.’ Blake’s work in a more modest way seems to be saying the same thing.

Robert Crozier, 30/2/2010


..I welcomed Howard Blake's new Quartet which sounded perfectly at home sandwiched between two other complex and sophisticated works that also have instant appeal, namely Haydn's Op.77 and Tchaikovsky's Second Quartet. Howard Blakes's 'Spieltrieb' has a certain sequential scenic quality about its structure. A series of contrasting sound landscapes follow one another. At first these may appear quite unrelated but as the quartet progresses, connections are developed and revealed until the whole emerges as being satisfyingly bound together. Rhythm, timbre, string playing techniques and melody are all skilfully exploited in weaving this attractive sequence together and as the work reaches its conclusion the musical appetite is abundantly satisfied.

Alan Cooper, University of Aberdeen Music, 25/2/2010


Blake’s new quartet Spieltrieb, commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet to celebrate its 50th anniversary, was given a magnificent performance. It’s not often that one hears a première of such assurance and commitment. Spieltrieb is a concise work, playing for about 16 minutes, but within that short timespan there is much event – including a superb pizzicato scherzo of great virtuosity and, best of all, a coda to melt even the hardest of hearts, ending in the purest D major. This is a major addition to the quartet repertoire and it is to be hoped that it will be taken up by many groups in the near future.

Bob Briggs, Music web international, 7/2009

Related Autobiography Chapters


Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and Harold Craxton (1957)
70th birthday celebrations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (2008)
Benedict Kloeckner wins European Broadcasting Award with 'Diversions' (2010)
'Speech after long silence' for the Hong Kong International Piano Competition (2011)
All-Howard Blake concert conducted by Sir Neville Marriner (2014)

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