Wednesday 30 October 2013

Howard Blake 75th birthday

Howard Blake - Photographer: Geoffrey Argent
Howard Blake
photo Geoffrey Argent
If you say the name of composer Howard Blake, then the first thing that comes to mind is his music for The Snowman with its famous song Walking in the Air.  Sometimes a success like The Snowman can blind people to the full range of a composer's music, you only ever see the peak rather than the full landscape. Howard Blake is a bit like this, after all his opus numbers run to over 600, his Piano Concerto was written for the 30th birthday of Diana, Princess of Wales and his dramatic oratorio Benedictus has received many performances.

Benedict Kloekner - photo Marco Borgreve
Benedict Kloekner
photo Marco Borgreve
On Tuesday 29 October we attended a private concert to celebrate Howard Blake's 75th birthday. Blake himself played the piano, accompanying the young German cellist Benedict Kloeckner in a programme of Blake's music for cello and piano, Pennillion for cello and piano op 525a, Diversion for cello and piano, op.337a, Jazz Dances for cello and piano op.520 and Sonata for cello and piano, op.619.

Benedict Kloeckner (born 1989) originally got into contact with Blake in connection with Blake's virtuosic Diversions for cello and piano. Kloeckner played the work, accompanied by Jose Gallardo in the European Broadcasting Union's Young Artists Competition in Bratislava in 2010, ultimately winning first prize. Blake, as a congratulatory present, gave Kloeckner a new version of Blake's violin sonata transposed for cello. Kloeckner asked Blake if they could do a recital together, the result was an entire programme of Blake's music for cello and piano which they have performed in Germany a number with great success. They are recording the programme for South West German Radio in early 2014.

Benedict Kloeckner has been studying with Martin Ostertag at the Hochschule fur Musik, Karlsruhe since 2002, as well as with Frans Helmerson in the Kronberg Academy Masters Program since October 2009. Thanks to a loan by L-Bank Baden Württemberg, he plays a 1720 Petrus Guaneri cello.

Blake and Kloeckner opened their programme with Pennillion for cello and piano op 525a a version for cello and piano of a work originally written in 1975 for violin and harp. The work is a set of six imaginative variations on a Welsh-inspired theme. Whilst the Pennillhion had is showy moments, it was in Diversions for cello and piano, op.337a that the real virtuoso display came.

In his spoken introduction Howard Blake explained how Diversions had started out as the punning title, Major Diversions on a Minor Theme, for cello and piano. The work was then orchestrated and, under the encouragement of the cellist Maurice Gendron, the piece expanded to include a fearsome cadenza and finale. The work is in seven movements starting with a Prelude and finishing with Sarabande and Cadenza, and Finale Allegro ritmico. The work which springs most to mind is Tchaikovsky's Rocco Variations, though Blake's piece is rather more robust and each movement is very vividly characterised. Blake's style is tonal and through his teacher Howard Ferguson you could hear links to other English composers and Noel Rawsthorne is someone else whose work came to mind. There is a clarity to Blake's writing and, thanks to the involvement of Maurice Gendron, the cello part is a wonderful display for the soloist. Kloeckner played from memory and clearly had a great rapport with Blake.

After the interval they played Blake's Jazz Dances for cello and piano, Op.520. These are a group of nine movements each inspired by a modern dance rhythm, but they are by no means pastiches and in many Blake leaves the original far behind. Finally came the Sonata for cello and piano, Op.619 the version for cello of Blake's violin sonata. Again a strongly characterised work, full of big moments and some wonderful themes.

In all these Kloeckner played superbly, apparently coping easily with the technical demands of the cello writing. But more than that, he brought a very strong sense of identification with the music, giving strongly powerful performances which went far beyond simply playing the notes. This was brought home in the encore. As a complement to the host, Blake and Kloeckner played the whole of the Diversions for cello and piano, op.337a again!

After hearing these performances I can well understand why Kloeckner has won such acclaim in Germany with his programme of Blake's music and I look forward immensely to the recording. Blake has produced a new version of Diversions for cello and string orchestra (which Kloeckner premiered) and I hope that the work is taken up by British ensembles.

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