Friday 6 December 2013

The Barber of Neville

The Barber of Neville - PTC 5186 506
This new disc showcases wind concertos written by Howard Blake, but it also acts as an advanced celebration of Sir Neville Marriner's 90th birthday. Conducting the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the ensemble he founded in 1959. On this disc they perform Blake's Flute Concerto, with Jamie Martin, Clarinet Concerto with Andrew Marriner, Bassoon Concerto with Gustavo Nunez and Serenade for Wind Octet.

The title of the album refers to the circumstances which brought the recording about. Without being award of it Howard Blake, Sir Neville Marriner and his son Andrew all frequented the same hair dresser and it was through his good offices that they met and planned the programme.

Blake's Flute Concerto was written in 1996 and is for flute and string orchestra. In a very striking opening the flute sings over tremolando strings, with some lovely melodic writing for the flute. As the strings take over the musical theme the flute provides elaborate decorations. The scherzo (marked con spirito) is crisp and lively with, like much of the concerto, a neo-baroque feel. The movement has a lovely slow middle section, almost a cadenza and a rather perky coda. The Andante espressivo is a beautifully poised slow movement, the flute decorating the melody in a series of variations with a cadenza leading to the fourth movement, Marcia graziosi. This is a lively piece with a fluently personable theme. A cadenza leads into an atmospheric reminiscence of the opening.

As I have mentioned, the concerto has a somewhat neo-baroque feel, not that Baroque's style is aping the baroque, but the way he writes for the flute with it playing nearly continuously is akin to baroque concertos. Soloist Jaime Martin is the principal flute with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the orchestra of English National Opera. His playing is warmly fluent and poised throughout, giving the concerto a beautiful blitheness.

Blake's Clarinet Concerto has something of a history. It was originally written in 1984 for Dame Thea King (1925 - 2007). The publishers, Faber, insisted the composer re-write some of the passage-work in the first movement. Prior to a second performance in Vallencia, Blake supplied a revised clarinet part. But this was given to Thea King at the last moment by the publishers. This allowed her no time to study it, upset she put the work aside, never to perform it again. In 2010 Blake was persuaded to look at the addition he made, and he produced a new edition which re-instated them.

Thea King was taught by the clarinettist Frederick Thurston (1901- 1953), whose husband she became. Thurston gave the premiere of Gerald Finzi's Clarinet Concerto, a work whose influence seems to hover over Blake's concerto.

The opening movement starts with a short rhapsodic clarinet solo over sustained strings (the composer describes it as a recitative) Invocation , leading to the movement proper, marked Moderato molto deciso. The writing for clarinet very much evoked for me that of Finizi, but with an interesting rhythmic element to the accompaniment. The movement is a dialogue between the clarinet and the strings, rather perky in character but with hidden depths. A second recitative follows, Ceremony, another rhapsodic clarinet solo over sustained strings, this time leading to the slow movement, Lento serioso. This is the emotional heart of the concert, a rather intense movement full of English rhapsody. The finale, Round Dance: Vivace is a lively movement but hardly up beat, there is still a melancholic cast to the writing.

Andrew Marriner, former principal clarinettist with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields,  responds fluently to the technical demands of the concerto, his playing sounding easy and flexible. He responds warmly to the autumnal glow of the concerto and helps bring out the intense, rather melancholic nature of the English pastoral idyll.

Blake's Bassoon Concerto was written in 1971 and revised in 2009, it is written for bassoon and strings. The opening Moderato starts with a gathering gesture from the string, followed by melancholy musings on the bassoon. As the accompaniment gets more developed, the bassoon writing becomes more elaborate. In this movement Blake deliberately utilises the instrument's ability to um large intervals. Soloist Gustavo Nunez plays with lovely chestnut tones. Like the clarinet concerto, despite the outward gaiety of the movement there is a sense of underlying melancholy. The slow movement, Larghetto, is a deceptively simple movement, with the bassoon line over a nicely discreet string accompaniment. The music develops that sense of intensely passionate English rhapsody which I heard in the clarinet concerto. The finale, Presto is a perky movement with an edgy interplay between soloist and strings, leading to a long imaginative cadenza.

Nunez is the principal bassoon of the Royal Concert Gebouw Orchestra. He plays with lovely smooth chestnut tones, without the slightest sense of comedy that can sometimes accrue to the instrument. He demonstrates that the bassoon can be a real romantic protagonist in a concerto.

Finally we hear Blake's Serenade for Wind Octet written in 1990. His writing for the wind group reflects the wind octets harmoniemusik origins, music written for outside. The Grazioso opening movement displays some lovely textures and introduces us to a distinctively fascinating sound world. The second movement, Seriosos come una marcia lente features a lovely long breathed oboe solo, playing an attractively meandering melody. The third movement Molto vivace is a delightful piece, full of high spirits.

Blake has a remarkable talent for melodic felicity, and many of the musical ideas are highly memorable but he combines this with strong musical structure and emotional depth. This is music which appeals to mind and emotions as well as tickling the ear. His debt to his teacher Howard Ferguson and to English music from the 1950's is strong. Blake's music is unashamedly tonal and his traditional style clearly different to that of many of his contemporaries. But in our modern plural world there is room for all styles, and this disc introduces us to four works which delight and fascinate.

Howard Blake (born 1938) - Flute Concerto Op.493a(1996) [16.44]
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Clarinet Concerto Op.329a (1984, rev.2011) [21.31]
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Bassoon Concerto Op.607 (2009) [13.35]
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Serenade for Wind Octet Op.419 (1990) [14.40]
Jaime Martin (flute)
Andrew Marriner (clarinet)
Gustavo Nunez (Bassoon)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Sir Neville Marriner (conductor)
Recorded September 2012, St John Smith Square
PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC 5186 506 1Cd [68.24]

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