Bold romanticism: Howard Blake's Piano Concerto and Diversions
Howard Blake Sleewalking, Piano Concerto, Diversions, Elegia Stravagante; Sophie Witte, Sasha Grynuk, Benedict Kloeckner, Nicolas Dautricourt, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Howard Blake; Cadogan Hall - Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 7 2017
Howard Blake's piano concerto at the centre of an evening of his complex, and dramatic concertante works
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 2017/18 season with a programme of music by Howard Blake, conducted by the composer. The centrepiece of the programme was Blake's Piano Concerto, originally commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra to celebrate the 30th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1991. Blake himself performed the taxing piano part at the premiere, this time he conducted with Sasha Grynyuk at the piano. Cellist Benedict Kloeckner was the soloist in Blake's Diversions for cello and orchestra (a work originally written for Maurice Gendron), and Kloeckner was joined by violinist Nicolas Dautricourt to give the premiere of Blake's Elegia Stravagante (Duo Concertante) for violin, cello and orchestra. The evening opened with a new version of Blake's Sleepwalking for soprano and string orchestra, with soprano Sophie Witte
Howard Blake remains best known for his music for the animated film The Snowman, with the song Walking in the air remaining inextricably linked with the composer's name. But his career has been far wider and varied than this, encompassing film music including Ridley Scott's The Duellists as well as a substantial body of concert music. But if you only know Blake from The Snowman and the film music, his concert music can be something of a surprise. Tonal and approachable in a tradition that links Blake to his original composition teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Howard Ferguson, Blake writes large scale pieces of great depth and complexity. (Read my interview with Howard Blake).
Sleepwalking was originally written as a companion piece to Villa Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, for the same forces soprano and eight cellos. In his programme note Blake talked about finding the idea of eight cellos conjuring up the world of dreams, and his piece posits a scenario of a young woman asleep who then goes sleepwalking through various traumas before returning to sleep. Starting from atmospheric high sustained strings with the soprano vocalise over the top (the whole piece is wordless) the piece moved through seven highly contrasting movements, finally returning to the tranquillo of the opening. We had a series of highly varied moods evoked by instrumental writing very much in the English tradition of string music, from lyrical through to darker dramatic episodes. Witte sang with a lovely even tone, and a beautiful freedom at the top. A well put-together piece which did not quite take me on the journey the composer intended, and I would be interested to hear the original version.
Howard Blake's Piano Concerto is a large-scale dramatic work. It was in some ways the most conventional work in the programme, in three movements (the others were in seven or eight) and the only one to use classical sonata form. Christopher Palmer's 1991 programme note used the term Mozartian, but the composers who came to mind were Rachmaninov and Tippett; Rachmaninov for the big boned romanticism piece, particularly the piano writing, whilst Tippett for the way the piano texture sometimes eschewed showy bravura (but not complexity) and created a continuous texture which flowed over the orchestra..
The first movement started with an understated ear-worm on the piano alone, which Blake then developed into something more dramatic with tutti. Sasha Grynyuk was tireless, and indeed the piano solo got little rest in this movement. Even the cadenza eschewed virtuosity and was rather thoughtful and, unusually, ended the movement. The second movement started with solo piano chords accompanying solo violins and viola, until the tables were turned. The melodic piano line wandered expressively, but always with an elegant simplicity, and finally the whole ensemble moved the temperature up a notch and we got something richly romantic. The final movement started with a perky piano toccata, and developed into a series of variations with hints of jazz/blues. Often highly vigorous, the jaunty melody passed round the orchestra, but always with the piano to the fore over the top. Towards the end we had a simple return to the main theme in the piano before the big finish.
Blake's Piano Concerto is a terrific work, I enjoyed his recording of it (see my review) and I enjoyed this performance immensely. Sasha Grynyuk brought out the poetry in Blake's writing, and played the part with great flair. With longer rehearsal time, there would have been chance to iron out some of the issues of balance, Grynyuk's approach concentrated on poetry and nuance rather than sheer power, but overall he and the orchestra brought it off brilliantly and I hope it makes other orchestras interested.
After the interval the German cellist Benedict Kloeckner played Blake's Diversions. Originally written for Maurice Gendron (who encouraged Blake to add a cadenza and generally make the piece more virtuosic), the premiere was given by Steven Isserlis in 1989. But then it slept somewhat until Kloeckner played the version for cello and piano in the semi-finals of the European Broadcasting Union Awards in Bratislava (and went on to win the competition). Subsequently Kloeckner had played the work a number of times with Blake accompanying on the piano. But for this concert we heard the original orchestral version. It is based on an instrumental dance suite, with eight movements encompassing scherzo, march, waltz, aria serenade and sarabande, though in each Blake develops things in interesting ways. We started with Kloeckner's cello singing over an intense rather dark orchestral accompaniment. The scherzo was full of character, and toccata-lie, whilst the march developed into a really big romantic solo for the cello (and Kloeckner really made the piece sing here). The waltz was wistful and rather sly, with the cello line weaving in and out of the orchestra, and the serenade had the solo duetting with the oboe before moving into the perky sarabande which developed into a cadenza which had orchestral comments (including not quite raspberries from the bassoons). The finale was fast and furious, and completely joyous. Kloeckner clearly loves this work, and the virtuosity of the piece seems to suit him, he made everything magically engaging.
The final work in the programme was a new piece, Elegia Stravagante (Duo Concertante) for violin (Nicolas Dautricourt) and cello (Benedict Kloeckner). In seven movements, it started with violin and cello alone playing a melodic motif that sounded suspiciously like noodling, but in fact proved a fertile source for the musical inspiration of the piece. For much of the piece, the two soloists play together (in unison in some movements), and the effect was more like the structure of a baroque concerto rather than the large-scale battle of a full blown Romantic concerto.
During the work's seven movements, Blake brings back the original motif repeated in vastly different guises, creating some intense and full blown romantic moments, interspersed with episodes using different material such as a 'jazz fugue'. The two soloists often soared in unison (at one point at a 16th) over the orchestra, and the was a notably intense solo moment for Benedict Kloeckner, whilst a rather threatening orchestral passage rather evoked Walton. For the ending, there was a sense of the piece gradually unwinding, a moment for violin solo turned into a duet with the cello and the piece ended with just the two of them returning to the original motif.
This was a long and substantial concert, full of dramatic and complex music. It was a great pleasure to finally hear Blake's Piano Concerto live, as well as to experience the full orchestral colours in Diversions. Throughout Blake was supported by the sterling players of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing nearly two hours of complex and unfamiliar music, whilst the soloists encompassed the taxing demands of the solo parts in brilliant fashion.
Of course, no Howard Blake concert would be complete without The Snowman and as an encore Dautricourt and Kloeckner joined Blake and the orchestra for a version of Walking in the Air specially created for the occasion
Howard Blake's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1991 to celebrate the 30th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was given its premiere by the orchestra, conducted by David Willcocks, with the composer playing the piano part. The work had been recorded by Sony prior to this performance and this recording was reissued by Sony in 2008.
It is a substantial work lasting over 26 minutes and cast, as you might expect from Blake, in traditional form. Blake's career as a composer has been spent mediating between the traditional and more contemporary elements in the 20th century classical style.
The opening movement starts with an evocative and wistful Lento, a movement to which you might give the adjective filmic. Blake's concert music is fascinating for the way he does not turn his back on his film music but absorbs it and develops it. The music then gathers momentum, and the solo piano part become more strenuous as the Allegro bursts onto the scene. The writing is tonal, but complex and requires something from the listener. The piano writing is quite strenuous, but the soloist is rather part of the texture in the baroque or classical manner, rather then in combat with the orchestra in the Romantic tradition.
A hushed orchestra introduces a slow, evocative piano in the Andante espressivo. The movement develops with piano running passages through the orchestra texture, which culminates into a rather wonderful, big romantic moment The final Vivace wonderfully perky with the busy piano part loudly interrupted by the orchestra, and some lovely jazzy moments.
When I interviewed Howard Blake, he talked about how he had to re-learn his piano technique to play the piano part. The results are impressive and confidently fluent. It is piano writing which is probably difficult, but not always showy and Blake shows himself a sympathetic soloist, finely supported by Willcocks and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
The companion works to the concerto are two more of Blake's large scale orchestral works. His Diversions for Cello and Orchestra were written in their final form in 1985, with the cello part edited by the cellist Maurice Gendron. It started out life as a set of pieces for cello and piano, but the involvement of Gendron led to a considerable expansion of the piece with a commensurate increase in the virtuoso bravura of the solo cello part. Blake has recently started playing this bravura version with cello and piano and plans to record it with cellist ????
This recording of the orchestral version was made with Blake conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, with cellist Robert Cohen as the soloist. The work is a sequence of relatively short movements which hark back to the suites of the past. The opening Prelude is melancholy, with the cello singing in the alto register at first unaccompanied and then with just high strings. A perkily busy not quite Scherzo leads to a melancholic, rather dramatic March. The rather busy Waltz has some rather skittish, skittery playing. The Aria is the longest movement, it is slow and dark, with a sense of sustained intensity. Serenade is a rhythmic and melodic dance, and here the solo cello part starts to get rather busy indeed. The Sarabande and Cadenza provides the solo cellist with some wonderful virtuoso display moments, with quite a spare and dark accompaniement from the orchestra. The Finale is fast and furious with a wonderfully bravura end.
Blake's Diversions is a terrific work which combines an element of bravura with just the right element of fun and Robert Cohen is suitably dazzling in the solo part.
The final work on the disc,Toccata (A celebration of the Orchestra) was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the 30th birthday season (1976/77). The version performed on the disc was revised by Blake in 1988/1990. The work is a large and complex piece designed to show of the orchestra, but allied to a quite sophisticated structural imagination. All based on an 84 bar theme, Blake plays imaginative games in the way he shows off the orchestra and demonstrates his ingenuity. The joy of the piece is that none of this really matters, as when you listen you are carried away. The first section of the work displays the various sections of the orchestra, with the music having a quiet sense of steady overall progression. Blake uses a lively imagination in the way he gives each section of its orchestra its moment. And then the piece concludes with a wonderful jazzy fugue.
None of the works on this disc is well known, and the disc itself is slightly tricky to obtain. But I rather like Blake's imaginative re-working of contemporary style. The music here doesn't seek to re-define or push boundaries, instead it builds intelligently what has gone before. The results are neither simple nor simplistic and fascinating in their combination of wit and complexity.
Elsewhere on this blog:
The eight movements of Diversions are full of wit and enchantment - Maurice Gendron assisted Blake with the editing of the cello part. Once again the composer adroitly times and paces his treatment of intrinsically pleasing and grateful ideas. In some ways this is a modern Rococo Variations but with less bone china and more of a contemporary emotional landscape though nothing is dissonant. There are some lovely conceits here such as the confidingly pattering Serenade but profundity is never far away. The Finale has the cello and orchestra blazing away. Once again the Sony team must be congratulated on a recording balance that is both clear and sensitive to excitement and poetry.
TRIPLE DEBUT - An Appreciation by Christopher Palmer
Popular music – that is, music for the people – is very difficult in almost every way: difficult to write (well), to perform (well), to record, to market. Most of all it is difficult for “serious” musicians and critics to come to terms with. Their difficulty with popular music lies ironically in the one way in which, per se, it is not difficult at all: namely to appreciate, to listen to, to enjoy. The English seem always to have had a problem with enjoyment. They tend to be suspicious of, even dismissive of, anything, which makes too strong or direct an appeal to the senses and fails to engage the intellect. Consequently the dividing line between popular and serious music – or if you like between pop and art – has always been more rigidly defined here than in America, where they had Leonard Bernstein to demonstrate that one could be lecturing at Harvard one day and rehearsing a Broadway musical the next. Things are somewhat better now – largely due to the pioneering efforts of André Previn and others – but still bad enough to ensure that people like Howard Blake have had a hard time gaining not so much popular as critical acceptance.
In reality we are witnessing a manifestation of a much more basic conflict, one which besets civilized man in proportion as his lever of sophistication evolves through civilization – namely the relationship between innocence and experience. Howard Blake had a distinguished namesake – the poet William Blake – who gave a lot of thought to this matter.
There are in fact a number of affinities between the Blakes, not least the insistence of “firm strokes and clear outlines” which WB learned from his mentor, the engraver James Basire, and which has always characterised the music of HB. WB thought of ‘innocence’ as synonymous with that free creative energy which is the channel of man’s communion with God; not so much the state of childhood itself as the conditions which the idea, or ideals, of childhood invoke, the most important of which is the ability to accept life in all its aspects as a source of joy. Excessive materialism, mechanistic rationalism and intellectualism – by whom and in whatever form they are promoted – tend to restrain that energy and thence deny the spiritual significance of life. WB’s recurring theme is that of a world gone wrong because man has misused his natural endowments.
Many of Benjamin Britten’s greatest works conduct an anguished dialogue between the antitheses of innocence and experience. No composer felt more weighed down by the curse of consciousness, the disease of feeling, the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. For HB, however these fetters seem either never to have existed or to have been silently unlocked. Like the happy picnic crowd in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (the work, incidentally, of another of music’s Heavenly Babes), ‘he ain’t got no shame/Doing what he likes to do’.
It is surely no accident that Howard Blake still has the demeanour, the outlook, event the appearance, of someone half his age. He has a first-rate sense of humour – by which I do not mean merely a sense of fun (he is an outrageous mimic, particularly of pompous after-dinner speakers or lecturers or bores encountered at parties) but, more importantly, the ability to see himself and his work in a realistic perspective. This is what has saved him from becoming a victim of his own remarkable facility. Multi-talented people – in music, as in other things – often fail, ultimately, through not knowing what to focus on. Howard’s will to survive, to achieve has helped him overcome this. Growing up in Brighton, he played the organ as a boy and sang lead soprano roles in Gilbert & Sullivan and other operettas: facts which may account (a) for the expertise of his choral writing in his major choral work, Benedictus and (b) for his special understanding of children’s voices, as demonstrated in The Snowman and Granpa.
Howard was originally destined to go to Oxford but instead won at 18 a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Here he studied piano with Harold Craxton (even more impressive than his piano technique is his ability to play large chunks of piano and orchestral repertoire from memory at the keyboard) and composition with Howard Ferguson.
Already music of his was being published and performed while he himself was giving concerts of chamber music. He developed a passion for the cinema and, in fact, first earned his living for two and a half years as a projectionist at the National Film Theatre. During this time he made a film of his own and early acquired a taste for doing everything himself; today he always likes to be involved with as many aspects of his projects as he can. Jazz was another interest which developed in his immediate post-student days, and for a while he played piano in clubs. Thence he gravitated to playing as a session musician, and this took him into the world of records, radio, films and TV. Here he met fine musicians like Laurie Johnson and Bernard Herrmann, and it was Laurie who in 1968-9 invited Howard to compose some episodes of the‘Avengers’ TV series. This led to many other commissions for feature films, documentaries, shorts and commercials for TV and the cinema.
Of course composers, like other people, have to earn a living once their training is completed and, from the 1920s on, many such professionally trained composers – I do not speak here of those from other backgrounds like the theatre and popular music – have welcomed the opportunity to write for the media. One of two things generally happens to these composers: either they give up composing their ‘own’ music altogether, or – more often – the one career runs parallel to the other.
This, after all, is only to be expected if the composer is a ‘real’ one. What is almost unheard of is for a composer deliberately to abandon a flourishing career in media-music, in midcourse, in order to devote himself exclusively to his ‘own’ or ‘real’ music. Yet that is precisely what Howard Blake went on to do. In the early 1970s he weighed what he’d achieved in the balance, and found it conspicuously wanting (except in economic terms).
He decided to start from scratch again; a turning-point, a milestone on the way to the composer (i.e. the person he has now become). He left London, took up yoga and meditation, sat on a beach in Cornwall, bought a millhouse in Sussex, took up gardening. He also practised classical piano, did counterpoint exercises, and composed abstract, non-commercial music; the Piano Quartet, the Diversions for cello, the Violin Sonata, various songs, the Dances for Two Pianos and Toccata for Orchestra. Gradually the media came back into his creative life but on a new footing. Ballet became a major interest; Sadler’s Wells, the London Contemporary Dance Theatre and TV commissioned scores. In 1978, while living in Sussex, Howard had written a cantata, The Song of St Francis for the nearby Benedictine monastery, Worth Abbey.
Alongside film scores such as The Duellists, Agatha and The Riddle of the Sands, there grew up a large-scale choral piece, Benedictus. First performed in 1980 and later both publicly performed and recorded for CBS/Sony by Sir David Willcocks and the Bach Choir, it is a work by which Howard sets great store since, in a sense, it reflects his own spiritual odyssey. He has rejected the blandishments of commercialism the interests of becoming a better composer and, therefore, making a more valuable contribution to society.
CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA
Commissioned by The Philharmonia to celebrate the birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales
This, Howard Blake’s most recent large-scale work and his only major composition for piano to date, was commissioned by The Philharmonia in honour of The Princess of Wales’ 30th Birthday. It has a deceptive simplicity not unlike that of Mozart. I mention Mozart advisedly since the classical qualities implicit in scores like The Snowman and Diversions are on full frontal display in the Piano Concerto. There is a childlike exuberance and spirit of delight. The work was written at a time of great personal happiness and the music reflects this; but a shrewd supervisory intelligence plots every move and never allows the plain, ordinary, even commonplace musical language it speaks ever to sound plain, ordinary or commonplace. Much of this is due to a strong feeling for line, and not just melody: counterpoint is far more of the essence of Blake’s music than harmony. To cast a full-scale concert work in a simple diatonic style with no sense of déjà entendu is, in the 20th century, a considerable achievement.
The first movement is in more or less regular sonata form, the distinctive profile of both first and second subjects being drawn by the solo piano in the opening bars. An attractive (Mozartian) feature – in fact once of the loveliest passages in the work – is the introduction of a tranquil new theme, a new episode (clarinet solo, then bassoon) at the height of the development, before the climactic lead-back to the recapitulation. The cadenza – really more of an extended piano solo, senza bravura – is placed at the very end of the moment.
The second movement is a song-without-words or instrumental aria, whose roots probably lie in the popular ballad-style of the 1960’s, a style admired by Blake for its new harmonic simplicity and unsentimental melodic expressiveness.
The third movement takes the form of a theme (announced by the solo piano giocoso after a 42-bar-long introduction) and six variations, which include a brillante display-piece for violins (No.4), a fughetta for solo brass instruments (No.5) and a sudden dazzling, rainbow-arch in E major – there is something magical, transfiguring even, about this key – with the theme intentionally buried in the cellos. After that the music gathers momentum for an uninhibited coda.
The Concerto was composed in the summer and autumn of 1990 and was first heard in December of that year, when this recording was made. Its world premiere public performance took place on May 19, 1991, the day preceding the release of the album.
© 1991 Christopher Palmer
Booklet for Sony,Philharmonia Album 1991,
The dearth of repertoire for the solo cello should encourage more composers to write for the instrument ... Diversions is a welcome newcomer which could become an old friend. The eight movements all have an individual character, made more convincing by economic scoring in which each theme or effect is clearly defined. It is a bright, colourful, tuneful piece with tremendous rhythmic drive...