Sunday 2 November 2014

The Great Animal Orchestra: Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes proves to be an entertaining, sometimes moving work; a real achievement for both Richard Blackford and Bernie Krause expertly realised by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on a new release from Nimbus

The French composer, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was fascinated all his life by bird song and often incorporated these sounds within his works using conventional instruments. The Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) went one stage further in his Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds & Orchestra) (1972) using taped bird song with orchestra to great effect.

After hearing extracts from Bernie Krause’s book The Great Animal Orchestra, British composer, Richard Blackford collaborated with Krause, a world-renowned pioneer of wild soundscape recording, on a commission for the 2014 Cheltenham Festival.

The result, using Krause’s recordings combined with a symphony orchestra, is a thirty minute work called, naturally enough, The Great Animal Orchestra: Symphony for Orchestra and Wild Soundscapes. The work was premiered on 12th July 2014 in Cheltenham Town Hall by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Martyn Brabbins . The premiere was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and subsequently performed by The London Schools Symphony Orchestra at the Aberystwyth Festival on 2nd August 2014. A further performance followed on 4th August 2014 in Birmingham Town Hall, conducted by the composer.

Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have now recorded the work for Nimbus Records coupled with Richard Blackford’s orchestration of Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals.

NI 6274
The Great Animal Orchestra is in five movements, the first, Introduction and Tuning – Andante – Allegro assai (Borneo, Sumatra and The Arctic) opens with the sound of a pair of gibbons serenading themselves in the early morning, though to these ears, unfamiliar with all the sounds of nature, I would not have known. The orchestra gently enters with a woodwind motif winding around the animal sounds perfectly. The music rises in dynamics with the sound of orchestral tuning simulated alongside animal calls before the tempo picks up for the allegro, a joyful, forward moving melody which, in its less dynamic moments, allows the sounds of nature to be heard, always blending beautifully. Soon thunder is heard which, together with drums and the unstoppable rhythmic forward thrust, creates a terrific sound. Later the music quietens to a hush with a descending theme and some beautifully blended Arctic seal cries, before the humpback whale is heard and the music fades.

Scherzo with Riffs - Vivace (North America) features the amazing sound of Pacific tree frogs set against a staccato orchestral theme to great effect. The frogs provide a rhythm interspersed within the rhythmic orchestral theme. Blackford’s orchestration and his rhythmic melodies are wonderfully used with a xylophone creating a continuation of the rhythm of the frogs. A woodpecker provides a terrific rhythmic call that fits perfectly within the orchestral rhythm and texture. The music becomes more animated with drums beating a rhythm and taking us into the dynamic coda.

The haunting sound of Wolves howling opens Elegy – Andante (North America) soon joined by French horns in this most atmospheric and, indeed, unsettlingly chilling of movements. The lower strings take over, rising to a quiet, solo cello theme before the music falls to a hush as we hear the cry of a beaver, creating the feel of a lament. This is soon picked up by the orchestra in this most affecting music with Blackford’s fine free tonality adding to the natural sound of nature’s cries. The music rises to a peak with a greater sense of emotion before quietening to end with the cry of the beaver.

March and Charge – Maestoso – Allegro molto (Africa) brings chattering sounds and the deep growls of the elephants, punctuated by orchestral phrases. The music then slowly moves forward, deep in the orchestra in this marvellously descriptive piece of music depicting the elephants moving off, occasionally punctuated by the deep sounds of the elephants. Slowly the music increases in dynamics and finds a faster rhythmic pulse as sounds of munching appear, a gorilla eating bamboo. The movement builds to an energetic passage with orchestral outbursts before quietening at the end.

The final movement, Variations: Song of the Musician Wren – Vivace (Central America) opens with the gentle song of the Musician Wren joined by woodwind and pulsating rhythmic strings. It is quite amazing how Blackford combines the ‘tune’ of the Wren with his woodwind motifs in this most stunningly written movement.

Suddenly the brass sound a motif echoed by the Common Potoo. As the music gains in momentum we hear the cry of the Screaming Piha, sounding so like a natural part of the music. It is terrific how the brass imitate the bird calls so well before the music pushes on to a coda where all the birds and orchestra provide the perfect conclusion.

This is an entertaining, sometimes moving work, a real achievement for both Richard Blackford and Bernie Krause expertly realised by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals (1886) was originally written for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, harmonium, xylophone and celeste. Richard Blackford’s orchestration is most effectively done and follows The Great Animal Orchestra extremely well. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales bring much animation and joy to the livelier episodes and, in such passages as Tortues (Tortoises) reveal some interesting harmonies as well as a fine contribution from the contrabassoon in L’éléphant. Particularly effective in this orchestration are the screeches in Personnages à longues oreilles (Characters with Long Ears) or donkeys, where Blackford asks the violins to play beyond the bridge. Saint-Saëns’ famous The Swan is, unusually, given to a horn. Lovers of this popular, if lightweight piece will find renewed enjoyment here. It is imaginatively scored with many individual little touches.

An interesting talk with Richard Blackford and Bernie Krause in conversation with Christopher Cook, lasting around 20 minutes, follows these performances.

The recordings are excellent. The orchestra and tape recordings in The Great Animal Orchestra are superbly done. There are excellent booklet notes but anyone wishing to find out more information can do so by going online at 

1 comment:

  1. The album is available as an Mp3 digital download at Wild Sanctuary's WildStore here: - and as a CD from Nimbus Records here: