Friday 2 May 2014

And the Snowman came too - piano music by Howard Blake played by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Walking in the Air - The Music of Howard Blake - Vladimir Ashkenazy - Decca
Walking in the Air - piano music by Howard Blake: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Vovka Ashkenazy: Decca
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 24 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Fine survey of Blake's piano music covering his entire career

This new disc of piano music by Howard Blake  on Decca could be seen as a survey of the composer's varied career as it not only includes recent music (his Parting, op.650a from 2013 ) and his opus 1, but also a works from different periods in his career including a group of items based on his film scores and notably, a piano piece based on Blake's most famous piece of music Walking in the Air from The Snowman. Here the music is played by the distinguished pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (joined by his son Vovka Ashkenazy for the works for two pianists).

Blake trained at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1950's studying with Howard Ferguson and finding his style of composing did not fit with the prevailing modernist ethos. He had great success as a conductor and composer going into films, but in the 1970's he turned his back on this and re-worked his style to develop his pure classical music again. As a composer Blake has never turned his back on any of his music, he has the admirable ability to incorporate the different facets of his career into one seamless whole and this disc reflects that.

The disc opens with an arrangement for solo piano of Walking in the Air from the 1982 animated film The Snowman. It makes a lovely piano prelude, with Blake working the famous tune into an attractive pianistic texture. Music from the 1979 film The Changeling follows; Music Box is based on a theme written originally for a music box but developed here into a fluently attractive piece. It is not just about the big tune, as there is also plenty of finely crafted piano writing to enjoy. The final piece of film music is Laura from the 1977 film The Duellists which is a more darkly sombre character piece.

The Prelude for Vova was commissioned in 2012 by Vladimir Ashkenazy (the Vova of the title) and the intention was to make a piece out of his initials, and Blake uses A-S-H (A, A flat, B natural) as the basis for this melancholy character piece whose initial restlessness develops into something quite strenuous. Speech after Long Silence was written at Ashkenazy's instigation for the 2011 Hong Kong International Piano Competition. As the name suggests, it starts from a quietly atmospheric opening and develops into something bigger. At nearly eight minutes this is one of the longest single pieces on the disc and is an impressively large-scale composition, far more complex and more full of pianistic drama than the character pieces.

The Eight Character Pieces were written in 1975, again for Vladimir Ashkenazy. The eight movements follow key sequence with pairs of minor and major in a series of descending fifths, B minor, B major, E minor, E major so that the cycle ends in D major (rather neatly the relative major of B minor). A lyrically melodic Prelude leads a wistful but muscular Nocturne. The Impromptu is flowing but with a busy texture underneath (hints of Michael Nyman here, though the piece was written 18 years before Nyman score The Piano), whilst the Toccatina is a playful toccata. Mazurka has interesting rhythmic elements though I doubt you could dance to it, and the lyrical Walking song has a steady onward feel to it. Chaconne has some big dramatic piano writing over the constantly moving bass, whilst the concluding Scherzo skitters about jazz style (Blake calls it Oscar Peterson-inspired).

Dances for Two Pianos was written in 1976, again we have a sequence of short movements (nine in all), each in a different dance style but as with other Blake pieces in this genre there are mischievous differences (the rhumba seven in a bar for instance) and the use of two pianos enables Blake to give us some richly imaginative textures. The work opens with the Rhumba full of delight and humour, then a Slow Ragtime which is all relaxed charm. Jump is all complex rhythms with fast accented offbeats, whilst Medium Rock is very laid back. Folk Ballad starts gentle and spare, before developing into something more complex. Boogie is a mad, up tempo jazz piece with an infectious rhythmic swing, the Jazz Waltz has a lovely melody with hints of Bill Evans, given a not uncomplicated treatment. Cha Cha is fun but not too fast, and the suite finished with a completely mad Galop.

Blake's Sonata for Two Piano dates from the early 1970's, in four movements it is perhaps one of the most serious pieces on the disc, definitely not programmatic nor a character piece. The opening Allegro has some strenuous writing for the pianists, with lovely big chords, and a low key end. The quiet and spare Lento is more chromatic and less tonal than some of the music on the disc and I started to think of Bartok here. The spiky yet infectious Scherzando is playful and skittering with jazzy rhythms and 'wrong' notes'. Finally a Presto which is brisk and upfront, with the two players playing the complex textures with verve.

Piano Fantasy is Blake's opus 1 dating from 1955 when the composer was 16. In it, the young composer explores oppositions of mood and texture, quiet v. loud, spare v. busy and there are some positively orgasmic climaxes. The Four Easy Pieces (from 1956) are simple but effective, quite folk-influences with spare textures. Next comes a Romana from 1963 written as a result of Blake's first meeting with Vladimir Ashkenazy (whose wife was at the Royal Academy of Music with Blake). It is a complex, romantic piece with rich harmonies.

The disc finished with a pair of recent works. Haiku for Yu-Chee a lovely spare piece from 2006 written for his next door neighbour, and finally Parting a lovely little piano miniature written specially for the disc.

Throughout, Vladimir Ashkenazy's playing is exemplary and he brings out the charm of the smaller pieces and rhythmic joy of the smaller pieces, whilst taking the bigger, more taxing ones in his stride. With his son Vovka, the two make a fine piano duo.

This lovely disc wends its way round both Howard Blake's career and his relationship with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, resulting in a highly personal selection of pieces. It is also great fun to listen to and to dip into.

Howard Blake (born 1938) - Walking in the Air op.489u (1982)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Music Box op.489n (1979)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Laura op.604 (1977)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Prelude for Vova op.640 (2012)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Speech After Long Silence op.610 (2011)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Eight Character Pieces (1975)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Dances for two pianos  op.217a (1976)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Sonata for two pianos op.130 (1971)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Piano Fantasy op.1 (1955)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Four Easy Pieces op.1b(1956)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Romanza op.489 (1963)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Haiku for Yu-Chee op.567 (1963)
Howard Blake (born 1938) - Parting op.650a (2013)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Vovka Ashkenazy (piano)
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, 15, 16 March, 10, 11 June 2013
DECCA 0289 478 6300 7 1Cd [80.22]

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