Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Works of depth and quality from Richard Blackford

In recent times there seems to have been a resurgence in the writing of choral works that are popular with a wider public. This is surely a good thing, particularly now it is recognised that many styles of classical music can co-exist side by side without necessarily having to be complex or difficult to have depth and quality.

Depth and quality certainly came to mind when I listened to a new release from Nimbus Alliance www.wyastone.co.uk/all-labels/nimbus/nimbus-alliance.html featuring works by Richard Blackford. The main work on this new disc is Mirror of Perfection, a setting of words by St Francis of Assisi but there are also six choral anthems including Blackford’s Westminster Te Deum.

NI 6205
Richard Blackford  www.blackford.co.uk  was born in London in 1954 and graduated from the Royal College of Music. He was later appointed Composer in Residence at Balliol College Oxford. In addition to many choral works he has also written a Violin Concerto (2007) and a Clarinet Quintet (2009). His four-hour choral and orchestral score for CNN/BBC Millennium won an Emmy Award for Best Title Sequence. He has written extensively for theatre, cinema and television. In 2008 he became the first ever Composer in Association to the Brno Philharmonic.

Mirror of Perfection was commissioned by the Royal Ballet School and first performed at the Royal College of Music in 1996. In this recording the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Ballard Lane Preparatory School Choir are conducted by the composer with soloists Ying Huang (soprano) and Bo Skovhus (baritone)

It is in seven sections or canticles, the first of which, Canticle of the Creatures, opens with a rich baritone solo ‘Laudato si, misignore’ from Bo Skovhus. The chorus joins quietly before gaining strength and when the orchestra joins the chorus it leads to a soaring, ecstatic passage. Bo Skovhus has a prominent role as the words ‘Laudato si, misignore’ are repeated. One is soon drawn into the beauty of Blackford’s writing which is by turns both contemplative and ecstatic.

Plaintive strings open the Canticle of Love I, before the baritone enters. When soprano Ying Huang enters it is against more anguished strings. At the words ‘Vivento muor’ the baritone adds to the emotional thrust. At times Ying Huang is almost operatic in this dramatic writing.

A vibrant section for chorus and orchestra, Canticle of the Furnace, follows providing much first rate musical invention, with some tremendous singing from the chorus in this rhythmically syncopated writing.

Canticle of Love II opens with sombre orchestral playing. The soprano enters hesitatingly on the words ‘Che cielo e terra grida’ Brass and bells interrupt, before a rising ecstatic theme with rich orchestral accompaniment. Ying Huang is in lovely voice as she soars majestically.

The pizzicato strings that open Canticle of the Birds are soon joined by the baritone in a lovely setting of St Francis’ sermon to the birds sung in French. Midway through, this canticle rises to a passionate, romantic orchestral interlude. At words ‘Mes frères’ the children’s choir joins the orchestra before baritone Bo Skovhus joins with them to end this section.

There are pizzicato strings again at the opening of Canticle of Love III. An alto chorus enters slowly, seemingly uncertain at the words ‘Amore, amore, che si m’hai ferito’ (‘Love, love, who has so wounded me’). The music becomes more animated and, as more of the choir joins, layers are added to increase the drama and passion. The orchestra enters to add even more strength and emotion. Later the singing and orchestra quietens, yet moves unfalteringly along before the soprano rises in one last passionate moment before the canticle ends quietly.

The last canticle, Canticle of Peace, has a rich orchestral opening before a passionate part for solo violin. The children’s chorus then enters with the words ‘Beati quelli kel soteranno in pace’ (‘Blessed are the peacemakers’) with such a striking orchestral accompaniment that makes this a superb, very affecting moment of extreme beauty. The baritone joins towards the end, then soprano in a rich tapestry of sound rising to a climax of power and beauty before a quiet orchestral ending.

Richard Blackford really knows how to set words drawing, as he does, so much more from the texts with his music. The Choral Anthems on this disc are performed by the BBC Singers conducted by David Hill with Olivia Robinson (soprano) and Iain Farrington (organ).

Written for Westminster Abbey and first performed there in 2010, A Westminster Te Deum is a jubilant work, full of life, with an organ opening wonderfully played by Iain Farrington. The BBC Singers are in fine form in this most attractive work that has a gentler and contemplative central section. There is an attractive melody that runs right through this work until its stirring conclusion. 

On Another’s Sorrow was commissioned by Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers on the occasion of their 25th Anniversary. This a capella work is a setting of William Blake where Blackmore shows what can be achieved by such simple means. There is some really effective part writing with a gloriously sung rich climax.

I Know That My Redeemer Liveth is another attractive and sensitive a capella setting that brings the words to life in the way that Blackford places emphasis on the words. From the Song of Songs is a lively, tuneful setting for soprano solo and organ that evokes youth and spring. Beautifully sung by Olivia Robinson, there is much lightness of touch in the writing.

A Lullaby is a setting of anonymous 15th century text in which Blackford manages to evoke an ancient, timeless feel that gently rises and falls. This performance gives more strong performances from all section of the BBC Singers and a lovely contribution from Iain Farrington. I Will Sing To The Lord is a bright and joyful anthem that concludes this CD with the rich sounding BBC Singers accompanied by organist Iain Farrington. This work is full of little details that enhance the setting and has a rousing ending.

There are some fine works on this disc, in particular the beautiful Mirror of Perfection, which I am glad to have got to know. The recordings made in the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth in 1997 (Mirror of Perfection) and St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge in 2012 (Choral Anthems) are excellent and there are full texts and translations.

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