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Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency, October 2011

Blake’s engaging melodiousness lies somewhere between Dvořák and salon music. Certainly, “Penillion” has the warmth of Dvořák. I suppose that one reaction to these works might be slight condescension due to the popular aspect of their melodies; the other reaction, which is mine, is simply to appreciate this very easy-to-enjoy music. Quite surprisingly, considering that some of them go back to 1974, all of these works are receiving their world premiere recordings. The string quartet music is played most engagingly by the Edinburgh Quartet, and the various soloists on the second CD are equally fine. Read complete review

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, May 2009

Howard Blake is a pianist, conductor, and prolific composer; the Violin Sonata is his Op. 586, for instance. He is apparently enough of a film score composer to have turned down the opportunity to write one for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon…Blake’s writing is very tonal and has moments of beauty (II of the Violin Sonata, Penillion, and IV of the Piano Quartet)

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, January 2009

One of the most distinguished and versatile of contemporary English composers, Howard Blake first won fame for his enchanting music to The Snowman. His music for the concert hall includes the popular Nursery Rhyme Overture and a glorious Piano Concerto. This world-premiere recording of four chamber masterworks, overflowing with beguiling melodies and catchy rhythms, should win Blake many new admirers. Beautifully written and performed by an all-star line-up, these enchanting scores will be loved by anyone who adores Schumann or Brahms.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, November 2008

Released to coincide with his 70th birthday, this disk of, mainly, "recent" chamber works by Howard Blake is a welcome reminder that there is so much more to this interesting composer than Walking in the Air and a myriad of film and TV scores.

Whilst a student Blake formed a violin and piano duo with the late Miles Baster—it was after a recital they gave in Edinburgh, which ended with the Franck Sonata, that Baster was asked to form the Edinburgh Quartet (for whom Blake has recently completed a String Quartet for their 50th anniversary)—and they worked their way through the whole of the repertoire for their instruments. The Violin Sonata was written at the behest of Baster but as he left for Scotland and the new Quartet the work was abandoned with only a few sketches made. A decade later Jack Rothstein asked for a Sonata and the first version of the present work was written. But what we have here is a "ferociously" (Blake’s word) revised version, dedicated to the memory of Baster. Starting in a most unprepossessing way the music soon moves into typical Blakeian rhythmic and melodic mode, and the movement progresses in a dance–like manner, with short lyrical episodes breaking up the forward movement. Although this music doesn’t sound at all like Douglas Lilburn’s magnificent Violin Sonata (1950) it reminded me of that work because of its sheer determination of purpose. The slow movement which follows is distant and withdrawn, the music moving simply in a melodic line for the violin accompanied by a single line in the right hand of the piano and held chords in the left. An agitated and passionate middle section, with wide leaps for the fiddle, disturbs the calm but the opening section returns, a little more resigned and melancholic. The finale is a laconic and gently humorous piece, after a whirlwind start, which jumps from idea to idea without resting. This Violin Sonata is a very fine achievement and a worthy addition to the repertoire.

Penillion was originally written for violin and harp and exists in several different versions—one for flute and harp is available on a disk of Blake’s chamber music, Meridian CDE84553. It’s in eight very short sections mixing lively and restrained music. As befits a penillion—a Welsh composition where an harpist accompanies him/herself whilst singing—these are songs without words, but the harmonies are far more modern than anything you’d hear in a real penillion. It’s an unpretentious, delicate piece.

That the Piano Quartet should be included here is of special significance for it was with this work that Blake made the conscious decision to cut back on his more commercial, and lucrative (!) film work and turn to the concert hall. Indeed so much is it a pivotal work in his catalogue that he turned down the opportunity to score Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in favour of writing this work. The work was written for the performers playing here, who gave the première, in the Purcell Room, eight months after this recording was made. It’s a very classical work in the mould of Dvořák’s chamber works (a comment which shocked Blake when I mentioned it to him, for he had thought it to be rooted slightly earlier). No matter. It’s a fine work, strong themes, a well thought out design, very gratefully written for the instruments—Blake fully understands strings (he says he once played the fiddle badly). The scherzo, second, movement has a Mendelssohnian lightness and freshness about it, but the harmony belies anything pre–1940! The slow movement may come as a shock to anyone who knows Blake’s wonderful Piano Concerto for this is the Concerto’s slow movement in embryo. It’s very touching in this form, the emotion more restrained, the gestures smaller but no less moving. The finale is a country dance.

The Jazz Dances make a delightful collection of encore pieces, but they’re not jazz per se, rather jazzy pieces—in the way that the Blues in Ravel’s Violin Sonata is jazzy. It’s hard to believe that these pieces, which fit perfectly on to the combination of violin and piano, were originally written for two pianos! They are by turns fast and slow, one a blues, one a boogie, one a kind of popular song and so on. Like the Five Pieces, op.84 (1964) by his friend Malcolm Arnold any one of these miniatures would make very good encore pieces for they are most enjoyable and great fun.

This is a very enjoyable and exciting disk, not least for the superb Violin Sonata. Madeleine Mitchell is a committed advocate for this music and it is to be hoped that the Sonata, at the very least, will enter her regular repertoire. The composer himself is a sympathetic duo partner, and the sessions brought back, for him, the memories of his partnership with Baster and the joy and satisfaction of playing chamber music together.

Despite the fact that the recording of the Quartet dates from 34 years before the recordings of the other works, the sound is remarkably consistent and has a lovely, rich, ambiance and in the duo works there is a real feel of the concert room. The musicians are placed a little way from the microphone so as to put them in perspective with the acoustic.

Now Naxos has dipped its toe into the Blake catalogue might I make a plea for a disk of his music for string quartet? The public deserves to hear more of this endlessly fascinating and very interesting composer.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2008

‘Howard Blake, the British composer of music for the animated film The Snowman’ could well be the misguided description for one of the UK’s most versatile musicians.

So popular has that work become, it is in danger of deflecting attention from his prodigious amount of music for television and films, and of his time spent as a ‘serious’ composer. His portfolio includes violin and piano concertos, ballet, opera, orchestral works, and chamber music, four of his most important scores in this latter genre now receiving their world premiere recording. Stimulated by the violinist, Madeleine Mitchell, he was prompted to complete a Violin Sonata began thirty-five years earlier, the three movements full of outgoing happiness, Mitchell’s bright and silvery tone being ideally suited. She gives an equally attractive account of Penillion, a work originally scored for violin and harp. The title is Welsh, and refers to the ability of a singer to improvise against a set melody on the harp, a feat hotly contested in Welsh music competitions. Here it is played by violin and piano, the violin taking the part of the singer, the score fully written out. The final work, Jazz Dances, is also in a version for violin and piano having appeared in many guises. You will go around humming the Cha-Cha for days, the work attractive but commercially lightweight. Mitchell is excellently partnered throughout by Blake, a fact that seals their benchmark status.  Amid this recent recording is a 1974 performance of his Piano Quartet, originally made as a demo disc. Blake was joined by a string trio of Jack Rothstein, Kenneth Essex and Peter Willison, at the time well-know principals of the major London orchestras. Three bubbling movements surround a very attractive Lento of which Blake has expressed his particular affection. I hope Naxos continue their Blake association with the Violin Concerto, a score I much admired when reviewing its concert premiere.

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