Thursday 5 July 2018

Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen

Richard Blackford: Niobe - Tamsin Waley Cohen - Signum Classics
Richard Blackford Niobe; Tamsin Waley-Cohen, The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Ben Gernon; Signum Classics Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Inspired by the Greek legend, this richly romantic yet tough work showcases the superb musical talents of all concerned

Niobe is a work for solo violin and orchestra by Richard Blackford which was written for the violinist Tamsin Waley Cohen, who performs it on this new disc from Signum Classics with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon. The work is a single 23-minute span of symphonic music, which is here issued on disc on its own.

Blackford is inspired by the story of Niobe, who boasts that she is greater than the goddess of virtue, Leto, because Niobe has seven sons and seven daughters whereas Leto only has two. Leto sends Apollo and Artemis to kill all Niobe's children, Niobe's husband kills himself devastated, and Niobe is turned to stone and weeps ceaselessly.

The work was very much planned with Tamsin Waley-Cohen in mind and Blackford's discussions with her also touched on the way the story of Niobe relates to the plight of women unfairly treated in our own time, both those suffering under extreme religious laws and the double standard applied to Western women.

Described as a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, the work is not strictly a violin concerto in the 19th century sense.
At times the violinist leads but at other times she is subsumed and Blackford in his programme note describes how the soloist is hounded by the orchestra. The voice of Tamsin Waley Cohen's violin, though, is frequently heard soaring sweetly over the orchestra, and there are sensual as well as dramatic moments.

The work is not strictly programmatic, in the sense that there is no single thread of narrative, instead Blackford divides the piece into four sections, Niobe The Lover, Niobe the Blasphemer, Niobe the Pleader and Niobe the Mourner.

Blackford writes for a large orchestra and this is a richly imaginative and often richly textured work. Underlying everything is a sense of structure (Blackford's note talks about the reverse sonata-form structure and his use of motivic transformation and development). But what the listener will notice first is the richly romantic texture of Blackford's language and his highly developed sense of colour, all within the context of a complex harmonic language which combines lyricism with harmonic complexity.

Yet despite the modernity of Blackford's harmonic style, the sense of romanticism and lyricism is what colours the piece. Perhaps it is the influence of Tamsin Waley Cohen's wonderfully sweet singing violin. And this comes to its own in the eerie stillness of the final movement as well experience Niobe being turned to stone.

The performance from Ben Gernon and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is exemplary, with no sense that they are finding their way. In fact, the Czech players really illuminate Blackford's writing and give it an inner glow. This is no surprise, the orchestra commissioned the work and they premiered it oon 11 November 2017, two days before the recording was made in their home, the Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinum in Prague.

I am in two minds about the work being issued on its own, as an EP (at suitably reduced cost). It helps you concentrate, and avoids crass populist companion pieces, yet I worry that people will be put off. I certainly hope not, this is a significant achievement from composer, soloist, orchestra and conductor.

Richard Blackford (born 1954) - Niobe [23:00]
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Ben Gernon (conductor)
Recorded in Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague on 13 November 2017

Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance and workshops at Kings Place (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Handel & Vivaldi from Grace Davidson & the Academy of Ancient Music (★★★½) - cd review
  • The good the bad and the ugly: Susan Froemke's The Opera House (★★★½) - film review
  • Russian Romantics: music for violin & piano by Glinka, Glazunov, Cui, Rubenstein, & more (★★★) - CD review
  • Powerful & emotional stuff: Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse at RCM Double Bill - Opera review
  • What a delightful voice: getting to know the music of Francesco Gasparini (★★★★) - CD review
  • Coming into focus: Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni returns to the Royal Opera  (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo  - interview
  • Handel's finest arias for base voice - Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Story-telling in America: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Grange Park Opera (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Each a world unto itself: Arvo Pärt The Symphonies (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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