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Howard Blake: Spieltrieb, String Trio, A Month In The Country / Edinburgh Quartet

Blake / Edinburgh Quartet
Release Date: 07/26/2011 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572688   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Howard Blake
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Edinburgh String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 0 Hours 56 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

A few years ago I was accompanist for a performance of a work by Howard Blake--a song cycle for children's voices called All God's Creatures, settings of poems about animals (by Rossetti, Hardy, Carroll, William Blake, Tennyson, etc.) that honors and celebrates the noble "creatures" with which we share the planet. It's a wonderful piece--dramatic, humorous, exciting, with well-wrought melodies and excellent accompaniments that make characterful, colorful musical representations of the poetry. And listening to the music on this CD of chamber instrumental works confirms that Blake is quite good at this kind of "scenic" and "thematic" musical conceptualization, ideal for the world of film and television scoring, Read more which Blake is well known for.

Indeed, it's difficult to listen to any of the works here, even the non-programmatic pieces, without some images coming to mind, or without thinking "movie-music." Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; in fact, this entire disc makes for a very pleasant hour of listening--and after all, the suite A Month in the Country was music for the film of the same name, Leda and the Swan was for television, and "Walking in the Air" for radio. Yet, even in the Trio and the Spieltrieb for String Quartet, which do not have a programmatic connection, we still are treated not to cohesive, formally worked out and fully developed thematic ideas and harmonic relationships, but rather to a series of nonetheless appealing themes and bits of themes, a dance rhythm here, a lullaby there, a "ferocious" outburst here, a canon there, strung together very cleverly and effectively--not structurally or developmentally the most sophisticated music, but nevertheless technically demanding of first-rate players.

And this quartet, for whose 50th anniversary the Spieltrieb was written, is fine indeed, the group's present membership not only upholding the ensemble's long-established artistic excellence, but managing the numerous thematic/rhythmic/tempo shifts with technical ease and overall cohesiveness, the entire recital imbued with a spirit of shared enjoyment among the players. This program not only opens the door for listening to more of Blake's music (his Violin Sonata, Piano Quartet, and Passion of Mary are also available from this same label), but certainly initiates an order for more from the Edinburgh Quartet.

– David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com

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Though now a couple of years out of date, our survey of Howard Blake's music on CD sets this new Naxos release of chamber string works in context. Missing from that list is the Naxos disc of Blake's choral masterpiece The Passion of Mary op.577, released last year.
 
In his notes, Blake describes the opening of Spieltrieb as "furious, if not thoroughly bad-tempered", but if that was his intention, he failed - the first few minutes are rather a mixture of nervous tension and melancholy. Blake explains his choice of title, translated as "urge to play", in rather rambling fashion, arriving at some questionable propositions, but his basic plan was to "write 'whatever came into my head' and to allow the form to go wherever it felt like going." As a result there is a bit of everything in the fourteen minutes, from a four-part canon to a cradle song, from a pizzicato dance to a set of variations to a quote from Blake's own Passion of Mary. Somehow, however, all those disparate chunks hang together in a coherent if restless whole that is, ironically, no kind of play, managing to sound serious and crafted as well as exciting and often quite beautiful.
 
A Month in the Country started life as a score for strings for the now long-forgotten 1986 Pat O'Connor film of the same name. Blake then made a concert suite of it, again for strings, and finally arranged it for string quartet for this recording last year. The film is about "two former soldiers coming to terms with the horrors of the Great War amidst the serenity of the English countryside", a description which gives a good idea of what to expect from this suite: a blend of pastoralism, nostalgia, tragedy, and hope - not to mention some straightforwardly attractive music.
 
There is a minor problem with the editing of some of the tracks in A Month in the Country, with the 'topping and tailing' cut extremely fine, leaving the listener sometimes with the impression that a track ending has been faded down a fraction too precipitately, and that the next track starts a millisecond or two after the music does.
 
Leda and the Swan takes its title from the 1924 poem by W.B. Yeats, itself based on the rather sordid Greek myth. Fortunately there is no rape scene as such in Blake's work, and in some ways the music is barely dark enough to depict any depravity. Again Blake's description, that the "musical style of the quartet hints at the fin de siècle symbolist atmosphere surrounding Maeterlinck, a half-veiled world of shadows, languour and sensuality", seems at odds with the notes as played. Though the opening chords are briefly reminiscent of another Swan, that of Sibelius's Tuonela, the rest of the piece sounds like a movement from a late string quartet by Beethoven communicated to the world by spirits through Janá?ek's pen: impressive, in a word.
 
The String Trio dates from the same period as Blake's Piano Quartet, but having shamefully lain unperformed for more than three decades, Blake revised the work last year for this recording. Like the Quartet, it is stylistically and stylishly 'lost in time', looking back with elegance and warmth to the great string trios of both ends of the 19th century.
 
Walking in the Air is a tune that very likely has good and bad connotations for Blake - good, because it has undoubtedly made him a fair bit of money; bad, because it has overshadowed the 600-plus other works he has published. This version for string quartet, which is pared down from an original Snowman Suite written in 1993 for a Classic FM compilation disc, of all things, and itself based on the famous film score, brings only good news for the listener - that lovely tune sounds more gorgeous than ever and, although it is probably impossible not to hear that lyric, there is no Aled Jones.
 
All the music on this disc is self-evidently written for listeners. Absolutely everyone brought up on Haydn, Beethoven or Dvorák will enjoy these works - Naxos could almost make that a "money back guarantee". But Blake's chamber music is not in any way dumbed down, in the style of minimalism or an anaemic Hans Zimmer- or John Barry-style film score: this is full-blooded music full of style, wit and imagination. Throw in the fact that these are all world premiere recordings, skilfully and passionately performed by the Edinburgh Quartet - recently celebrating their 50th anniversary - and the music lover has no choice but to buy this disc, despite even the minor technical flaws and rather ungenerous playing time.
 
Sound quality is high, though there is some background noise of the kind generated by electrical interference; in the quietest sections it can be quite noticeable, at least through headphones. The CD booklet is informative, though it has one or two peculiarities: the notes are ostensibly written by Howard Blake, and signed by him, yet about halfway through there is a sudden and permanent switch to the third person ("In 1986 Howard Blake was commissioned to..."). Also, Naxos's legendary minute font is now complemented by minuscule photographs, it seems: there are two in the booklet of the Edinburghs and Blake that might as well be of someone else, so small are the faces. The photo of Blake in particular looks like it was taken at a 1960s school cheese and wine party.
 
– Byzantion, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1.
Spieltrieb, Op. 594 by Howard Blake
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Edinburgh String Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2008 
2.
A Month in the Country, Op. 611 by Howard Blake
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Edinburgh String Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2010 
3.
Leda and the Swan, Op. 249a by Howard Blake
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Edinburgh String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977 
4.
Trio for Strings, Op. 199 by Howard Blake
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Edinburgh String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1975 
5.
Walking in the Air, Op. 615 by Howard Blake
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2010 

Sound Samples

Spieltrieb, Op. 594
A Month in the Country, Op. 611: I. Idyll: Larghetto, espressivo
A Month in the Country, Op. 611: II. March: Alla marcia, tempo giusto
A Month in the Country, Op. 611: III. Elegy: Adagio
A Month in the Country, Op. 611: IV. Scherzo: Scherzando
A Month in the Country, Op. 611: V. Finale: Andante espressivo
Leda and the Swan, Op. 249a
String Trio, Op. 199: I. Allegro energico
String Trio, Op. 199: II. Andante doloroso
String Trio, Op. 199: III. Allegro capriccioso
Walking in the Air (version for string quartet), Op. 615

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 A Real Chamber Music Treat! August 5, 2012 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "This disk presents English chamber music by a living composer, who is undoubtedly unfamiliar to most here in the U.S. All works on this very fine recording are smooth, gentle, easily accesssible, and superbly played by the excellent Edinburgh Quartet. I cannot point to a single weak link in this program, and I recommend it with no reservations. I trust you will (like me) consider this as a real find." Report Abuse
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