Saturday 19 April 2014

A fine collection of piano works by Howard Blake receives terrific performances from Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy on a new release from Decca

Howard Blake (b. 1938) is best known for his music for the 1982 film The Snowman that includes the song Walking In The Air. Yet his compositions include concertos, oratorios, ballets, operas and many instrumental works.

Blake was born in London but grew up in Brighton, Sussex.  Whilst attending Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School for boys he sang lead parts in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and was recognised as a talented pianist. At the age of 18 years Blake won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Howard Ferguson. Finding himself at odds with his contemporaries concerning musical style he virtually stopped composing, turning his attention to film.

On leaving the RAM he briefly worked as a film projectionist at the National Film Theatre before playing piano in pubs and clubs for a period of time. Working as a session musician on many recordings led his to work as an arranger and a composer, a role which gradually became his full-time occupation

Blake has written numerous film scores, including The Duellists with Sir Ridley Scott and David Puttnam, which gained the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Festival in 1977, A Month in the Country with Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth which gained him the British Film Institute Anthony Asquith Award for musical excellence in 1989, and, of course, The Snowman, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Blake’s concert works include a piano concerto commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra for the 30th birthday of Princess Diana in 1991, a violin concerto to celebrate the centenary of the City of Leeds in 1993, a cantata to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations in 1995 and the large-scale choral/orchestral work, Benedictus (1980).

More recent works include Lifecycle – Twenty four pieces for solo piano  (2003), Songs of Truth and Glory (2005), commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival, The Land of Counterpane (2007) a song-cycle to words by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Howard Blake is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and, in 1994, received the OBE for services to music.

A new release from Decca , entitled Walking in the Air, features piano works by Blake performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Vovka Ashkenazy . The works on this disc give an excellent view of Blake’s work ranging in date from 1955 to 2013.

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The title of this new release could, at first sight, be taken to indicate a collection of lightweight pieces. However, the composer of the music for The Snowman reveals himself to be a composer of substance in some terrific pieces played superbly by Ashkenazy.

What can one say about Blake’s music for The Snowman? Walking in the Air, Op.489u (1982) is a tune in a million and, as played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, has a beautiful richness of texture.

There are two further film related pieces on this disc, first Music Box (from The Changeling), Op. 489n (1979) that has so many distinctive Blake features, yet with an early 20th century quality and some lovely touches from Ashkenazy. Laura (from The Duellists), Op. 604 (1977) has some surprisingly dissonant intervals that make this a very attractive piece.

Written for Vladimir Ashkenazy, Prelude for Vova, Op.640 (2012) has similar features and, though relatively short, is a work of some substance that rises to a rousing climax with terrific playing from Ashkenazy.

Speech After Long Silence, Op.610 (2011) is a haunting piece that rises to a number of climaxes with some rather difficult, quite unusual passages. When the main theme re-appears it is a terrific moment.

Eight Character Pieces (1975) opens with a Prelude: Andantino that has Blake’s distinctive rising intervals that are instantly identifiable. This is a lovely little piece. Nocturne: Andantino sounds like a tribute to Chopin with its trills and certain intervals. For all that, it is a gorgeous piece, with Ashkenazy providing all that one could want. Impromptu: Cantabile has Ashkenazy showing his incomparable technique in playing of formidable delicacy and lightness of touch. Toccatina: Vivo, an even faster piece than the Impromptu, again shows Ashkenazy’s terrific technique in this little gem that, again, has hints of Chopin.

Mazurka: Tempo di mazurka is fascinating in that, through the mazurka rhythm, one can again hear Blake’s distinctive fingerprints, those rising intervals. Walking Song: Semplice is simple, direct, yet full of character and feeling whilst the slow Chaconne in D minor: Lento has strange intervals and harmonies that slowly build in strength to a climax with superb playing from Ashkenazy particularly in the later cascading, descending passage. The final piece, Scherzo in D major: Prestissimo, hurtles forward before a slow affecting melody that is soon replaced when the prestissimo again pulls us forward at breakneck speed to a coda that returns to the slow tune.

Vladimir Ashkenazy is joined by, Vovka Ashkenazy for the Dances for Two Pianos, Op.217a (1976). Parade: Allegro is a rollicking piece, full of fun, Slow Ragtime has a lovely gentle pulse, Jump: Allegro an attractive syncopated rhythm,

Medium Rock has a nostalgic theme, still with a rhythmic pulse and in Folk Ballad: Lento Blake develops a simple folksy theme into something more substantial.

Boogie, tempo giusto is, again, great fun, full of manic humour with these pianists on fine form and enjoying themselves, Jazz Waltz is a terrific little waltz with, as the title suggests, jazz inflections, the infectious Cha-cha is given a lovely rhythmic pulse whilst the Dances conclude with a madcap Galop.

Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy are absolutely brilliant in this work.

The Allegro of Sonata for two pianos, Op.130 (1971) has a rather strident opening before the lines of the two pianos quieten and open out. There are many dramatic moments with some fabulous playing of great accuracy from Vladimir and Vovka Ashkenazy as well as moments of intense, nervous energy. The Lento brings some beautiful dissonances as the two pianists make their way through this haunting landscape, rising to a number of peaks before ending quietly.

There are terrific rhythms in the Scherzando that rattles ahead with each player chasing the other. In the final Presto these pianists burst out in the opening with powerful playing before a gentler section appears that doesn’t last long. This is virtuosic music that requires players of the utmost virtuosity which is exactly what it gets here. A stunning conclusion to a work that will give a surprise to anyone expecting the Howard Blake of The Snowman.

The early Piano Fantasy, Op.1 (1955) has a quiet, tranquil English atmosphere that gives way to a lively, buoyant central section before descending into the tranquillity of the opening theme. This piece is beautifully realised by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Comparing this with Blake’s later work shows that his music has lost none of his early freshness and life.

Four Easy Pieces, Op.1b (1956) has a spiky little Moderato, a gentle Valse triste that has a beautiful nostalgic feel, and a lively Con moto before the melancholy Andantino. Ashkenazy takes such care, always drawing all he can from these simple little pieces

Romanza, Op.489o (originally Op.5f) (1963) Andante con moto is a flowing piece that rises to a lovely climax. It is a beautiful piece full of atmosphere.

Haiku for Yu-Chee, Op.567 (2006) brings a halting little theme showing how Blake can draw so much from so little.

This fine collection of piano works concludes with Parting, Op.650a (2013), a brief, sad, haunting piece.

I do hope that the popularity of The Snowman will not have the opposite effect of discouraging serious collectors from trying this worthwhile and attractive disc. There are some extremely fine works here that receive terrific performances.

The recording made at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England is first class and there are excellent booklet notes by the composer. 

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