Thursday 17 April 2014

Voices of Exile, a fine choral work from Richard Blackford, in a first rate performance from the Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra directed by David Hill with soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Gregory Kunde and Gerald Finley on a new release from Nimbus

Back in November 2012 I was particularly impressed by a new release from Nimbus of works by Richard Blackford (b.1954) , his Mirror of Perfection and Choral Anthems.

Now from Nimbus comes another of Blackford’s choral works, Voices of Exile. It was back in 1992 that Blackford recorded a 15-year-old refugee girl, Kamla, in the Kalighat slum area of Calcutta. Her village had been destroyed by drought and she, like hundreds of thousands, lived on Calcutta’s streets. When her family left her village they had to walk for days and consequently could take none of their few possessions. All she could bring with her, she said, were her songs, a link with her village, her past and her culture. 

It was not until 2001that Blackford was able to incorporate Kamla’s song into Voices of Exile which also sets words from a variety of sources. David Hill directs the Bach Choir, New London Children’s Choir  and Philharmonia Orchestra  with soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano) , Gregory Kunde (tenor)  and Gerald Finley (baritone)

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Prelude (Tenor Solo and Chorus) is a setting of Poetry after Auschwitz by Tony Harrison. Two drum taps, an echo of timpani and a solo violin playing an astringent theme leads to the solo tenor, Gregory Kunde, in the poignant words,

Redeeming fire melts only wax redeeming fire meant to invoke
the souls from Auschwitz chimney stacks their destiny of smoke

Eventually Kunde is accompanied firstly by the solo violin, then the orchestra in this dramatic theme. When the choir enters, the tenor rises up in passion before descending to just the tenor and solo violin to end.

PART I Memories of Home 

Bengal (Chorus with tape) sets a Bengali folksong in the recording of Kamla Chaudhuri as well as words by Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh. Kamla sings the opening before chorus enters followed by a spoken text with choral background ‘A year has passed and I am one year older, but the new year has brought no hope of freedom…’ Towards the end, the text is spoken in a variety of overlaid languages.

Tibet (Baritone Solo and Children’s Choir) sets the poem Memories of Tibet by Gergyi Tsering Gonpo and opens with light textures from a variety of percussion before a syncopated orchestral theme. The New London Children’s Choir takes over from Baritone, Gerald Finley who returns later, adding something of an operatic quality in the way he pushes the drama forward.

Zaire (Chorus) sets Kin the Beautiful by Mabiala Molu, in strongly rhythmic music in some somewhat reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein. There is some fine choral singing from the Bach Choir with a strong climax at the end and running straight into a cry from the Somali singer, Osman Dugleh that opens Part II.

PART II Journeys 

Somalia (Tenor Solo with tape). Osman Dugleh’s cry leads into the tenor solo part with a hushed orchestra and rumbling drums as Gregory Kunde sings the words of ‘Fleeing’ by Abdirahman Mirreh, a particularly poignant moment, both musically and textually. Blackford does a remarkable job in making his orchestra leave traces of world music within the texture.

Tibet (Baritone Solo) brings more verses by Gergyi Tsering GonpoCrossing the Frontier.’ It is a recording of Gonpo’s gentle voice that is accompanied by the orchestra before baritone, Gerald Finley, joins in this flowing, affecting melody. Blackford’s setting of the words, ‘How can I slip away like this,’ somehow brings to mind Michael Tippett’s of ‘A Child of Our Time.’

Austria – Passacaglia (Chorus and Children’s Chorus) returns us to Europe and Nazi Austria with a setting of ‘It has happened’ by Erich Fried. Returning to Nazi persecution again suddenly jolts us into the tragically timeless nature of persecution and exile. There is some fine part writing that weaves the chorus and children’s chorus in the words, ‘It has happened and it goes on happening.’

Somalia – Fugue (Chorus) takes its text from ‘Time’ by Abdirahman Mirreh, running straight into a terrific fugue.


With Chile (Mezzo-soprano Solo) there is an orchestral opening with thunder effects before Maria Eugenia Bravo Calderara reads from her own poem, ‘Private Soldier’. Catherine Wyn-Rogers enters for the first time in a finely sung part that moves around dramatically with the orchestra and soloist becoming increasingly passionate up to the words, ’But I know what you are called. Human…’ There is a poignant coda with solo violin.

Nigeria (Tenor and Baritone Soli) opens with a quiet drum roll and a descending woodwind theme before the soloists join, first Gregory Kunde, then Gerald Finley, in a text on genocide. The text quotes from the words of Blake’s Jerusalem ‘I will not cease from Mental Fight…’ with Blackford drawing on Parry’s setting before a fine dramatic orchestral climax.

Turkey (Chorus). An a cappella chorus brings a setting of The Embrace by Oktay Rifat to end Part III with some first rate choral singing.


Strange percussion sounds open the rhythmic Bosnia (Baritone Solo) a setting of ‘Neither here nor there’ by Himzo Skoropan, before the soloist enters. Whilst the first two verses seem to take a less intense tone, the second two are given more drama and tension, with braying orchestral interruptions.

Macedonia (Chorus with tape) features a folksong sung by Tanya Czarovska. Her recorded voice opens this section alone before spoken text is then overlaid. Soon the chorus enter, quietly behind the soloist and spoken text in this inspired section.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers opens Algeria (Mezzo-soprano Solo) in the text,’ I remember you standing at the balcony waving…’ Blackford’s writing of the orchestral part is masterly as the mezzo soprano sings a descending motif.

PART V Freedom

Greece (Chorus) sets an extract from ‘Exile and Return’ by Yannis Ritsos for chorus and orchestra. Rhythmic drums precede the entry of the chorus who, when they arrive display some fine singing in Blackford’s terrific part writing. 

With Kurdistan (Mezzo-soprano and Tenor Soli), a setting of ‘My Wish’ by Mohammed Khaki, Catherine Wyn-Rogers takes the lovely melody of, ’In my dreams I come to your tent…’ before the tenor joins and the orchestra lifts the music to an even higher level. There are some lovely textures of voice and orchestra in the coda.

Angola (Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Baritone Soli, Chorus and Children’s Chorus) brings together all the forces in a setting of Antonio Joaquim Marques’ ‘Daughter of the Desert.’ The orchestra picks up the pace before baritone, Gerald Finley enters in this superbly written piece. Finley is soon joined by mezzo, Catherine Wyn-Rogers then tenor, Gregory Kunde before finally the two chorus in an uplifting section that’s ends quietly.

Epilogue (Tenor Solo) brings us full circle to another setting of a poem by Tony Harrison, ‘Poem’ with hushed orchestra, tenor and solo viola before overlaid texts are recited. It is a solo violin with the quiet thunder of timpani that leads to the coda where the timpani make a last dramatic roll.

This is a fine choral work that deserves to be heard often. The tragedy that underlies Voices of Exile is, if anything, more prevalent in the world today that ever, making this such an apposite work. One of the additional benefits of this work is to introduce us to poets that, perhaps would not normally be widely heard, encouraging us to explore further.

David Hill and his forces provide a first rate performance and the recording from the Abbey Road Studios, London in 2005 is excellent. The taped passages are remarkably well integrated into the music.

There are informative booklet notes by the composer and full English texts. 

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