Monday 20 April 2015

Chamber music by Howard Blake at Milton Court

Howard Blake and Bendict Kloeckner
Howard Blake and Benedict Kloeckner
performing together in 2013
Chamber music by Howard Blake; Madeleine Mitchell, Rivka Golani, Benedict Kloeckner, Sasha Grynyuk
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Old fashioned musical virtues and strong chamber interaction

The concert at Milton Court Concert Hall on Friday 17 April 2015 was a showcase for the chamber music of Howard Blake (born 1938). The group of musicians consisted of the young German cellist Benedict Kloeckner, who has developed something of a name for himself playing Howard Blake's music, with violinist Madeleine Mitchell, viola player Rivka Golani, and pianist Sasha Grynyuk. The pianist was supposed to be Howard Blake himself, but in the event a broken arm prevent his playing, and we were lucky enough to get Sasha Grynyuk, who learned the taxing programme specially. The musicians came together in various combinations, with the Prelude for solo viola, Diversions and The Enchantment of Venus both for cello and piano, Piano Trio No. 3 Elegia Stravagante and Piano Quartet.

The concert opened with Howard Blake's Piano Trio No. 3, Elegia Stravagante which was written in 2014 and premiered by Howard Blake and Benedict Kloeckner, with Linus Roth, in Koblenz. In seven movements, the work is based on a melody which is first stated in the opening Andante (rapsodico) movement. It is a wistful, elegant and rather thoughtful melody, by turns dramatic and elegiac, which Howard Blake subjected to a variety of treatments including elements of jazz/blues, and a big solo moment for the cello. Despite the romantic textures of the work there was a clarity and elegance to the performance.

Sasha Grynyuk
Sasha Grynyuk
Benedict Kloeckner won the 2010 European Broadcasting Union competition playing Howard Blake's Diversions for cello and piano, and he and the composer have played it on subsequent occasions and recorded it. The work was originally written in 1983 and Howard Blake developed the cello part in conjunction with the French cellist Maurice Gendron, so it is a bravura and challenging work. It is an eight-movement suite which starts with a Prelude with a long-breathed and elegant melody which was given an intense, sung performance from Benedict Kloeckner, who played the piece from memory. A jazz-like, skittering Scherzo followed, then a darkly dramatic March with a big tragic cello tune. The Waltz had jazz-like hints too, and despite the technical challenges it was clear that Benedict Kloeckner was enjoying himself. The slow moving, elegiac Aria was followed by a rhythmically catchy Serenade which circled round endlessly, followed by a Cadenza which was full of brilliant details, and thoughtful moments. The Finale was very up tempo with fast and furious passage-work. Benedict Kloeckner played with concentration, depth and intensity, and a remarkable maturity, giving a performance which was deeply felt. He was finely supported by pianist Sasha Grynuk, in a piano part which perhaps less bravura than the cello part, but no less challenging.

Rivka Golani
Rivka Golank
After the interval the distinguished viola player, Rivka Golani, played Prelude for Solo Viola, which was written by Howard Blake as a prelude to his oratorio Benedictus in 1980 and it was prepared as a solo concert piece in 1989 by the viola player Frederick Riddle. It was a rhapsodic, rather darkly lyrical work using lots of strenuous string crossing and double stopping. Not an easy piece by any means, and it got remarkably violent at times.

The Enchantment of Venus was originally written in 2006 for basset clarinet and piano, for Colin Lawson who gave the work's premiere. The version for cello and piano was premiered in 2014 by Benedict Klockner and Howard Blake in 2014. The work has a mythological narrative, which Howard Blake bases around a lyrical, melancholic melody which he subjects to some strenuous dramatic development and turmoil, before finishing with beautifully simple, elegant melody. As before Benedict Kloeckner played from memory and gave a deeply felt performance, singing the final melody with great beauty.

Madeleine Mitchell - photo Suzie Maeder
Madeleine Mitchell
photo Suzie Maeder
The last work in the programme was the earliest, the Piano Quartet (for piano, violin, viola, cello) which was written in 1974 and premiered in 1975. The opening Allegro con anima was a long, complex and highly structured movement which felt very impulsively romantic and based round an animated, long-breathed melody. The whole movement had the feeling of being inspired by Dvorak's piano-based chamber music, and this carried over into the second movement, Presto (Scherzo). This was fast and furious, with fragments of melody being passed around. There were a pair of trios, the first lyrical relaxed, the second quieter and darker and more off-beat. The third, slow movement, Lento espressivo had long intertwining lines for the strings over repeated piano chords, with a magical end. The finale, Allegro robusto started out robust and carefree, almost a country gardens feel, but then the composer moved us rapidly through a variety of moods by turns darkly dramatic and slow, before a conclusion which seemed to evoke the material from the opening.

The four performers, combing together in various combinations throughout the evening, all played with a strong commitment and feel for Howard Blake's music, often with some quite challenging writing. And throughout, there was a lovely feeling of chamber interaction and collegiality. In style the music was varied, but always complex and full of interest; Howard Blake's music might be tonal, but it is never simple. And as a treat at the end, the four performers came together to play and arrangement of the composer's best known tune.

Howard Blake and Benedict Kloekner's new disc is now available from Genuin and the disc was featured on Deutschlandfunk radio in Berlin last night.

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