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Music review: a celebration of Howard Blake

16 August 2019

Roderic Dunnett was at St Albans for the 80-year-old composer’s birthday concert


An entire evening at St Albans Abbey (pictured) was devoted to the music of Howard Blake

An entire evening at St Albans Abbey (pictured) was devoted to the music of Howard Blake

SOME of the most celebrated names in the organ world have passed through the St Albans International Organ Festival. Many have hailed from far afield. This year’s entrants, including three from Korea and one each from Russia and Lithuania, spanned 11 countries.

The competition from which the festival grew was founded in 1963 by Peter Hurford, a superlative teacher and one of the most brilliant virtuosi of his day, who died, aged 86, this year. This is the festival’s 30th anniversary. So there was sadness, but also a celebration.

Headed by the St Albans Bach Choir, an entire evening at St Albans Abbey was devoted to the music of Howard Blake. Blake turned 80 last autumn, and remains determinedly active as a composer in all genres, especially film music: his exquisitely sympathetic score for A Month in the Country remains a classic. His opus numbers — they include The Passion of Mary — exceed 700. His music for The Snowman has charmed audiences for decades.

Central to this programme was Blake’s wonderfully conceived Benedictus, which draws on the Rule of St Benedict, several Psalms, and a wonderfully Psalm-like swathe of mystical poetry by Francis Thompson (1859-1907). Of this, more below. The concert was enhanced by variety, with the interspersal of two solo pieces. One he calls a “bravura work” for organ, reimagining Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher, rechristening it “The Rise”, and envisioning the tale emerging from suicidal gloom to optimism and normality.

A piano work, Speech after Long Silence, played with wondrous articulation by a multi-award-winning young soloist, Julian Trevelyan, seemed to leap effortlessly from one mood to another: here, temptingly Ravel-like, elsewhere dramatic. It seemed a model of how imaginatively the instrument can be used.

Songs of Truth and Glory, for chorus and orchestra, are five settings of George Herbert. Early on (“The Call”), Blake makes shrewd use of men’s and women’s choruses separately, with a kind of ground bass in the cellos and, later, a serene melody emerging. In the second, “Vertue”, a scherzo element in the strings is offset by the darkly repeated “Thou must die,” except that the final stanza exudes optimism, enthusiastically proclaiming “Then chiefly lives.” A striding bass line gives life to “Praise” (“King of Glory, King of Peace”), which has a magical shift in mood at “Thou grewest moist and soft with tears.” A violin solo reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s lark adds a final word.

If the second stanza (“Not rudely, as a beast”) in “The Elixer” makes for an apt dark opening, the last two lines are utterly subdued, and beautifully expressive. Indeed, Blake has a gift for turning simple harmonies to scintillating results. The last song, “Antiphon” — famously hurtled through by Vaughan Williams — receives an equally clever and original treatment here: resplendent bells, a finely light-stepped staccato splendidly achieved by the chorus (“The heavens are not too high”), a growing syncopated feel, and the choir women, who were excellent all evening, soaring rapturously for “My God and King”.

Blake’s inspired work Benedictus, for chorus and orchestra, filled the second half. The composer himself conducted, with calm and restraint; Andrew Lucas of St Albans had secured the pure-tuned, masterfully calibrated results earlier on.

The highlight here was a tenor solo, sung with passion by Peter Auty. He brought the whole work majestically to life.

One imaginative idea followed another in this largely penitential but also blazing cantata. The plangent opening viola solo (reprised at the end) set the pleading tone. Psalm 38 yielded drama galore: urgency in the strings (“Thy arrows pierce me. . .”); the aching central passage, akin to Psalm 22, which yields to growing optimism, harp in attendance, but finally crushed and mournful.

The next section, after an operatic clamour from the soloist, is an astonishing mixture of texts from St Benedict’s Prologue; the mood shifts, often pleading, but overwhelmed by a brassy, forthright accompaniment. A sublime, moving pianissimo conclusion yields to a passage from Psalm 15, where simple snippets of contrary motion make for a striking effect. Judicious repetitions underlined the text’s severe injunctions.

Psalm 84 reveals as much as any the intelligence of the orchestration. The interrelation of choir and soloist achieved powerful effects; and thunderous brass and cavorting woodwind added vivid colour.

Throughout the work, Blake’s word setting stood out. The magically emblematic language from Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” (1893), explored by the soloist, nudged close to the world of Stravinsky and even Schoenbergian Sprechstimme.

Much else remained: a dark, brassy dance for solo and animated chorus (for a fragment of St Benedict’s Rule); a thunderous, Benedicite-like section based on Psalm 103, ushering in tenderness and forgiveness; and solo horn adding its commentary (the warm textures in an idiom reminiscent of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater). Bells, and again those pensive cellos and double bass, helped nurture the work to its close. The finishing touch of the viola solo was one of genius.

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