Monday 21 October 2019

A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta

Richard Blackford - Pieta
Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, two movements from Five Mystical Songs, Richard Blackford Canticle of Winter, Pieta; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Huw Montague Rendall, Amy Dickson, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Gavin Carr; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 October 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
London premiere (and deuxieme) for Richard Blackford's powerful new version of the Stabat Mater combining the Latin text with poems by Anna Akhmatova

Richard Blackford's Pieta, a large scale setting of the Stabat Mater, interspersed with pomes by Anna Akhmatova, for soloists, choirs and string orchestra was premiered by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in June 2019 in Dorset. At the Cadogan Hall on Saturday 19 October 2019, Richard Blackford's Pieta received its London premiere when Gavin Carr conducted mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, baritone Huw Montague-Rendall, saxophonist Amy Dickson, the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, the Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus, and the strings of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The programme also included the premiere of Blackford's Canticle of Winter, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and two movements from RVW's Five Mystical Songs.

We started with RVW's Tallis Fantasia, the second time that I have heard this work at the Cadogan Hall in a month [see my review of the Britten Shostakovich Festival Orchestra's London debut]. The piece really needs the spacious acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral, but the relaxed, fine-grained tone of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra strings made the piece seem remarkably spacious even in this rather dry acoustic.
There was a lovely sweep to the main melody, and some fine playing from the solo group (I particularly noted the lovely mellow tones of the lead viola), with the more distant group (on the balcony above the stage) succeeding in sounding somewhat aetherial. Given the presence of the chorus, it was a good idea to preface the piece with Tallis' original psalm setting, and might have seemed a nice trick to segue directly from Tallis to RVW, but this necessitated the noisy sitting down of the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus during a quiet passage in the RVW, which destroyed the mood.

Saxophonist Amy Dickson played in the premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta, and he has subsequently written her a short solo piece, for soprano saxophone and strings, Canticle of Winter, which is inspired by a Robert Frost poem, Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening. Starting with quiet, evocative strings the saxophone solo gradually emerged, keening and melancholic. There were faster moments, with the soloist quasi-improvising over faster, rhythmic strings, but the overall impression was of something quietly poetic, evocative of a moment. Dickson played with a lovely even, singing tone, bringing a remarkable range of colours to the instrument.

The first half ended with 'Easter' and 'Love bade me welcome' from RVW's Five Mystical Songs, in a version for baritone, chorus, strings and piano. I had never heard this particular version before, though it is a highly practical one, and perhaps the piano was a little too discreet in the mix. Huw Montague Rendall gave a lovely straight performance of the work, bringing out the words and convincing in his sincerity in the work's religious intensity, without going too far. He is still quite young (baritone voices notoriously mature late) and he does not quite, yet, have the power to ride over the orchestra in climaxes, but he impressed with the concentrated focus of his tone. 'Easter' was straight and direct, whilst 'Love bade me welcome' was quiet and intimate, bringing the first half to a touching conclusion.

Richard Blackford is an interesting composer. Born in 1954 he is one of a generation who trained in modernism (Blackford was, for a period, assistant to Hans Werner Henze) but turned their back on it and moved into other areas, and whose more traditional compositional voice has emerged more slowly. Blackford has a significant catalogue of film, TV and theatre work, but more recently has concentrated on concert music, creating a distinctive voice with remarkable success [see my review of Tamsin Waley-Cohen's recording of Blackford's Niobe for violin and orchestra].

As a text for a choral composition, the Stabat Mater presents the composer with something of a challenge. A long poem, with 20 verses in rhyming Latin which was designed for devotional use, exploring the suffering of Mary at the foot of the Cross, and by analogy the suffering of the church. There are strong situations, but a rather unvarying sense of mood. Yet composers continue to be drawn to it, Dvorak created a large scale concert work as did Herbert Howells. Blackford's setting is similarly a concert work rather than a devotional one, and to solve the problems of mood he introduces two poems by Anna Akhmatova, from Requiem, in his own English translations. The first articulates a mother's suffering on the loss of her son, giving Mary a voice in a way that the Latin poem does not, whilst the second describes the chorus of angels singing on Christ's death. I was uncertain about the move between Latin (for the Stabat Mater) and English for the Akhmatova, and felt that the piece would work well with more direct communication by having the Latin text sung in English (though admitedly, most rhyming translations of the poem are terrible).

The result is a work in nine movements, for mezzo-soprano, baritone, chorus and string orchestra, with optional children's choir (here the Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus). The work was co-commissioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus (Richard Blackford is its president) and dedicated to Gavin Carr, the choir's music director, who conducted the performance.

Throughout the piece, the string orchestra formed a significant component of the music. Blackford's writing for them, often a commentary on the sung contributions or orchestral interludes, was full of striking textures and gave the work its particular tone. I felt that there was something quite mid-century about the way Blackford writes for strings (no bad thing indeed), and the work will certainly appeal to people because of the evocative writing. Blackford's writing is tonal, but complex and he does not really write big tunes. It is not a work which you come out humming the main theme, instead he gives really meaty expression to the meaning of the words, and these can be tough words indeed.

The chorus was on fine form, moving from understatedly bleak parlando to intense choral climaxes. They really committed to the work, and brought out the variety of moods which Blackford's music articulates. The fourth movement, 'Eia mater, fons amoris' with its polyphonic writing and slow build, was a particular choral highlight and they made a powerful contribution to the nagging anxiety of the concluding tutti movements. The children's chorus provided a more naive voice in the fifth movement, 'Sancta mater, istud agas'.

Amy Dickson's soprano saxophone, placed in the balcony above the orchestra, had a consoling, keening role, often coming in after the vocal contributions and providing expressive consolation. The saxophone's interesting timbre added a new colour to the music, particularly its distinctive high register.

By including Akhmatova's poem about the loss of her son, Blackford completely transforms the Stabat Mater text, for the first time giving Mary a voice and in 'Weeks fly swiftly by', Catherine Wyn-Rogers stunningly articulate the poet's rage. Over nagging, anxious strings Wyn-Rogers' strong, direct performance made the music and words really count, reaching a terrific, intense climax. The solo baritone has a less clearly defined role, but Huw Montague Rendall brought fine commitment to the strong declamation of Akhmatova's second poem 'A chorus of angels sang' accompanied simply by wordless chorus.

For the final two movements, we moved from the individual to the collective and Blackford built these two into a series of striking climaxes full of anxiety and concern, the stunning climax at the end responded to by the quiet keening of the saxophone.

Blackford's Pieta is a striking and imaginative work, and provides plenty to interest and challenge both performers and listeners. He succeeds in articulating the intense emotions of the poem without being mawkish, and by including the Akhmatova takes Mary's grief into a different perspective. In fact, I would have quite liked more Akhmatova in the mix. The work is published by Nimbus Music Publishing (with the score and parts available for hire), and will be performed by St Alban's Choral Society in St Alban's Cathedral in April 2020.

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