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John Quinn
MusicWeb International, January 2013

…in the shape of The Passion of Mary, we have a fine addition to the English choral repertoire. The music is accessible…and, as such ought to have audience appeal.

Blake’s idea is an original one, which is something else that appeals to me…we have here…a work that tells the story of the life and death of Christ from the standpoint of his mother, Mary. I don’t know of any other piece of music that does this and I think it’s a highly imaginative concept…Blake carries out his concept extremely successfully: the design of the work is strong, as is the music to which he carries out the design.

Throughout the piece Blake’s music is highly effective and well suited to his chosen texts. Also highly effective is his charming setting of William Blake’s ‘A Cradle Song’ to anchor the Nativity element in Part I.

Richard Edgar-Wilson acquits himself very well here and in everything else that he does and David Wilson-Johnson is authoritative and characterful…Patricia Rozario’s characterisation of Mary sounds well-nigh ideal throughout. With excellent contributions from London Voices and the RPO this performance under the composer must be counted as definitive in every respect.

These are accessible and consistently interesting settings which would make an excellent addition to the Christmas programmes of enterprising choirs.

The music is accessible, enjoyable and rewarding. © 2013 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, December 2010

The story of the Passion told from Mary’s point of view in ecstatic music of great beauty and originality. Blake is one of this country’s unsung musical heroes. On the strength of this, he won’t be for much longer.

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, November 2010

Some of our British colleagues are extolling this Passion of Mary by Howard Blake (b 1938) as a seismic choral event and are using some pretty high flown language to do it. Sigh. It is an interesting and rewarding attempt to visualize the life of Jesus through the eyes of his mother, set for soloists, choir, and an orchestra heavy on strings and brass. The cantata fastforwards through scripture in four sections: nativity through childhood, temptation through the crucifixion, a ‘Stabat Mater’, and a ringing ‘Salve Regina’ to crown the Marian theme in triumph.

The emphasis on Mary makes for some interesting encounters, both musical and dramatic. Her spoken comments during the Annunciation—“What do you want from me? How can this be?”—seem like appropriate bits of midrash to me. (How could she not have said something like that?) Blake’s ‘Magnificat’ is all Mary—it’s her prayer, after all. (With the English text, it’s an affecting sequence, especially with some swirling orchestral colors accompanying the soliloquy.) The Virgin is also entrusted with much of the ‘Stabat Mater’, which is a bit jarring since Jacopone’s Latin text is a poetic commentary on Mary’s grief, not really her own personal statement. The drama comes across, though we must sit through two stanzas of interval-spinning before Blake finally turns the soprano loose with a haunting melody at “Pro peccatis suae gentis”. The libretto even has Mary borrowing Jesus’ “O, Lord, let this cup pass from me” as she contemplates King Herod’s murderous decree. An interesting twist, no?

Rozario is a bit pushy for my blood, but she certainly sells the role. (Blake wrote it with her voice in mind.) Baritone David Wilson-Johnson’s Satan is suitably sleazy; and I like the sweet voice of young Master Blake, the composer’s son, who sings the role of Jesus as a child. (He goes to school in Sweden, which presumably explains his accent.) Choral interludes like the ‘Cradle Song’ (William Blake), the ‘Stabat Mater’ shared with Mary, and the ‘Salve Regina’ are well written and well sung.

So while—excuse me—Blake’s handiwork isn’t the Second Coming of Messiah or the St John Passion, Naxos did well to bring it to our attention. The four Nativity Songs are of negligible interest. The choir sounds unpolished to the point of virtual sight-reading, and the recorded sound—so strong in the Passion— becomes dingy and dim. (Nice brass, though.)

Malcolm Riley
Gramophone, August 2010

[A] memorable and striking dramatic oratorio on the life of Jesus…The Passion of Mary deserves widespread currency

George Hall
BBC Music Magazine, July 2010

Patricia Rozario is the tireless soprano soloist, with Richard Edgar-Wilsons giving us a Peter Pears-like representation of Jesus….[Blake’s writing] is technically skilled.

Emma Baker
Classic FM, June 2010

This expertly crafted, dramatic oratorio proves [Howard Blake is] a master of big-scale composition.

Gapplegate Music Review, May 2010

I first came upon the music of Howard Blake via the soundtrack to the memorable animated film The Snowman. In particular the main theme as sung by boy treble with orchestra really captivated. It was a little like a cross between The Moody Blues’s Days of Future Passed and middle-period Keith Jarrett. Hearing it still gives me goose bumps.

So when I saw this new Naxos release of Blake in a more “serious” concert choral zone, I jumped on the chance to hear and review it.

Blake seems like a natural when it comes to vocal-orchestral expression. Everything he writes in these two works (The Passions of Mary; Four Songs of the Nativity) seems to lay out in a kind of idiomatic near-perfection.

Howard Blake himself conducts the soloists, the London Voices, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for this recording, which seems definitive.

The music falls in a 20th Century tradition of such works by Walton, Vaughn Williams and others similar. That is to say, it uses extended tonal-traditional means to express lyrically the dramatic import of the narrative texts. The Passion of Mary follows a modern oratorio vein; Four Songs of the Nativity uses the song form for some memorable Christmas fare.

Mr Blake is a composer of talent. These are some beautiful and moving settings. If you are an Anglophile in matters classical, you will no doubt want this one. I will file it happily on my “modern English composers” shelf. That is, when I am not listening to and enjoying it.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, May 2010

The British have long had a tradition of choral singing. By the turn of the 19th century into the 20th century there were choral festivals all over the country. The Leeds Triennial and the Three Choirs remain the best known and indigenous composers wrote prolifically for the amateur singers. And what a line of composition it is: Elgar, Stanford and Parry wrote innumerable works for chorus and orchestra. More recently we’ve had Peter Racine Fricker’s A Vision Of Judgement and David Blake’s Lumina (a superb work which has been unfairly neglected) (both for Leeds), and John McCabe’s Voyage, Geoffrey Burgon’s Requiem and Gerard Schurmann’s Piers Plowman (for the Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester meetings of the Three Choirs Festival). The list goes on and on. Now we have Howard Blake’s The Passion of Mary which, put simply, just had to be written.

Having set the Stabat Mater, Blake realised that more was needed as he hadn’t said all that he wanted to say, especially, as he realised, there was no setting of the Passion from Mary’s point of view. This work was the outcome. It is firmly of the British school of choral music. We must not forget that Blake, when younger, was a boy chorister and sang in the choir whilst studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He took part in a performance of VW’s Sancta Civitas in the presence of the great man himself.

The Passion of Mary was given its British premiere at his 70th birthday concert in the Cadogan Hall, in London, in October 2008. It stunned the audience with its fluency, directness and feeling of ecstasy. The effect was spectacular—overcome with emotion, the audience sat in awe at the end, feeling that applause was, perhaps, not quite right after such an experience. I was there and can attest to that feeling That performance was of an exceptional quality and some of those performers have been reunited for this recording.

Although playing for less than an hour, Blake manages, with the most economic of means, to tell the whole story of Christ, from Mary’s pregnancy to the Crucifixion and after. Following a brief yet intensely effective orchestral prelude, and a bass recitative, the soprano (Mary) sings the Magnificat, to music of high elation. The vocal line flies aloft in a finely judged orchestral setting. The orchestra is used throughout in a most restrained manner and only raises its voice once—at the time of the Crucifixion—in music of great strength and fury. This is both mystical in feel and magical in conception. Blake’s son sings the small but telling part of Jesus as a child, a wonderful stroke of imagination this, and the tenor takes the part as a man. Throughout there are choruses, recitatives, arias, duets and scenas, all of which follow one another easily and grow out of the argument. One of the most striking moments is when Satan, a suitably oily performance from David Wilson–Johnson, tries to tempt Christ. This is written, save for four urgent chords from the orchestra, as an unaccompanied scene. The work ends with a chorus worthy of Gabrieli, with joyful shouts of Gloria!

The words “masterpiece” and “a work of genius” are bandied about far too easily these days, but here they can be used with confidence for this, surely, is Blake’s masterpiece, and, from a purely musical point of view, it is a work of genius. As my friend, and colleague, Robert Matthew-Walker wrote, “The Passion of Mary makes an immediate and lasting impact on the attentive listener, and there is no doubting the conviction of the composer and the directness of his musical utterance.” I cannot improve on that. This is superb stuff in a performance which is of the highest quality.

I was at the sessions and can confirm the immense amount of work which went into making this recording. Patricia Rozario, whose voice Blake had in his head whilst writing, glows as Mary, making the most of her long scenes, and taking the wide leaps in the vocal line as if they were the easiest things she had ever sung. Considering that the part covers more than two octaves this is, in itself, quite a feat. Richard Edgar—Wilson (Jesus, as a man) sings with an easy fluency and fine diction, displaying a beautiful high G, so soft as to make one gasp. David Wilson–Johnson (as both the Prophet and Satan) is full-voiced and creates both parts with such skill that you’d be hard pushed to realise that it was the same singer. He is especially impressive as Satan as he descends to a low E? in the temptation scene. Last, but by no means least, Robert William Blake (Jesus as a boy) imbues the part with a quiet authority, displaying a beautiful delicacy in his delivery, and a full understanding of the music. London Voices sing with real gravitas—whether in meditative mode or when screaming for blood. How could they not when they were trained by a man—Terry Edwards—who, I have said this before, is the best choral trainer in London. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is with Blake all the way, giving their all, especially when allowed music to themselves. The orchestration is magnificent, with some eloquent moments for the harp. Blake brings out all the voices with great clarity. Michael Ponder’s production is a real asset, for the sound is big, yet even in the loudest episodes everything is clear and precise. There are also passages of such breathtaking pianissimo that one is on the edge of one’s seat. The sound is the best I have ever heard from Naxos. All in all, this is one of the very best CDs it has been my pleasure to hear and report upon.

And we haven’t finished, for as a, very generous, coupling we have the Four Songs of the Nativity for chorus and brass. These are delightful settings of texts taken from Mediaeval English Verse (Penguin Books). Although not easy to perform, they make a lovely set of alternative carols if not of the community singing type. Ranging from devotional to racy this work makes a good conclusion to a very special disk. Choirs looking for new repertoire need look no further. Here are two works which can communicate easily and make a real impression on the audience. A very good booklet, with full texts, completes an issue which should be in every collection. This music is far too good to miss.

Matthew Power
Choir & Organ, May 2010

The highly original oratorio and refreshing Nativity songs focus on the life of Christ through the eyes of Mary. The approachable sound-world delivers an immediacy and drama that will draw listeners in. Excellent soloists bring the texts alive.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

The enormous popularity of The Snowman has rather masked Howard Blake’s output of choral and orchestral works, though he has been highly prolific in both genres. As a young man active in so many fields, he stood back from his success at the age of thirty-three to revisit his roots as a classical composer, and there followed a series of outstanding vocal scores, his most recent being The Passion of Mary completed in 2006. The fact that so many composers have set to music the mature life of Jesus as told by his disciples, gave him the idea of using a soprano voice to relate the Jesus story as seen by his mother. It was to have a long gestation period, the Stabat Mater section dating back to 2002, the whole work ending up in four sections running to almost an hour. It is a very pleasing but serious score written in a modern melodic mode, long solo passages and dramatic choral sections follow in the footsteps of mainstream English choral music of the 20th century. Opening with the ‘Visitation’ of the angel to Mary, and concluding with the ‘Resurrection’ it offers a deeply moving experience. The performance, conducted by the composer, has his eleven-year-old son, Robert William Blake, as the young Jesus, with Patricia Rozario, as Mary, and the much experienced tenor, Richard Edgar-Wilson, as the mature Jesus. Blake is a most imaginative orchestrator, the Royal Philharmonic playing with the perfect mix of delicacy and high impact drama. Outstanding singing from London Voices continues into the Four Songs of the Nativity a work commissioned in 1989 and ending with one of his most catchy tunes, Let Us Gather Hand in Hand. Both works are here receiving their world premiere on disc, the sound form London’s Abbey Road studios is excellent.

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