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Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, November 2011

This collection of chamber music for strings opens with Spieltrieb (2008), a string quartet that deals with the idea of “the urge to play” in music, which the composer explores in what amounts to a 14-minute compositional improvisation. Pleasantly tonal, it’s a stream-of-consciousness elaboration of a string of unassuming ideas, ending with a lovely nativity song…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Robert R. Reilly
Catholic News Agency, October 2011

This is all immediately likable music. Read complete review

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, October 2011

Blake’s lovely pastoral music for A Month in the Country won him the British Film Institute’s Anthony Asquith Award for Musical Excellence. In 1992 Blake created a suite for string orchestra from his film score which he later transcribed most effectively for string quartet. The music speaks eloquently of the healing balm—the serenity of the English countryside—experienced by the two soldiers who had suffered the horrors of the Great War. The opening Idyll is a tranquil evocation of a sunlit peaceful countryside, all still except for the warbling of birds: upper divided strings tremolando. The brief second movement is a march with unfeeling, remorseless rhythms as the soldiers march blindly to their fate. The central Elegy: Adagio speaks movingly of the pity of war and reaches a climax that screams of the terrors of the trenches. The Scherzo is a rustic dance briefly turned sour by discordant memories. The finale brings a resolution in the realisation of Beauty and hoped for optimism heralded by birdsong.

The curiously named Spieltrieb (Schiller’s term for play) is something of a musical game, Blake deciding to write ‘whatever came into my head’ and then allowing the material to go ‘wherever it felt like going’. Consequently this is a spontaneous experiment in free-style music-making. It comprises music of very different moods stemming from a fast and furious and bad-tempered beginning that might be visualised as a train starting up: Blake’s train of thought? There follows melancholy, choleric, menacing (shades of Herrmann in Psycho mood) and merry music. Interestingly at one point, the first violin’s high harmonics accompany an innocent cradle song.

Blake’s expertly crafted and melodic String Trio opens with an Allegro energico. The movement begins sturdily then proceeds in good spirits with discussion and some good-humoured argument between the three players before the pace relaxes for them to indulge in a broad lyrical episode. The mood of the central Andante doloroso is exactly as its marking; the music poignant and a little Gaelic, and somehow transporting us back two or three centuries. The concluding Allegro capriccioso restores sunshine—a jolly dance.

Leda and the Swan derived from a commission for a ballet for The Queen’s Royal Silver Jubilee Celebrations. The ballet, The Court of Love, was premiered on 1 March 1977. From this ballet Blake produced music, for string quartet, for another TV ballet, Leda and the Swan. It was a somewhat erotically charged production which shocked some viewers. Blake’s music is arresting: poignant, mysterious, shadowy and has a sense of languor and sensuality.

The recital is rounded off with a beautiful and colourful arrangement of Blake’s well-known and well-loved ‘Walking in the Air’ theme from The Snowman.

Blake’s accessible music never fails to impress with its invention and generous melody.

Martin Anderson
The Classical Review, August 2011

This CD doesn’t offer Howard Blake’s complete music for string quartet…Still, it does present a conspectus of music in a genre for which he’s not known, and so will naturally stimulate curiosity and interest. It reveals a man bien dans sa peau, as the French say: a composer who doesn’t have to prove anything, who’s not aiming to be a second Shostakovich and so writes music to please rather than convince.

The Edinburgh String Quartet plays with relaxed discipline, pushing the music where required and letting it unfold calmly as apposite. The sound is clear and warm. The booklet notes are signed by Blake himself but veer into the third person after a while which suggest they might be a composite—but another writer would have been less casual about the music: Blake writes about it in a refreshingly relaxed manner.

David Vernier, July 2011

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, 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.

Norman Lebrecht
La Scena Musicale, July 2011

Best known for his children’s cartoon score, The Snowman, Howard Blake is a serious, prolific composer with more than 600 opus numbers to his credit. The title piece is an adaptation of a Colin Firth war film for the Edinburgh String Quartet. Interlacing lyricism with sporadic rage, it exerts a fierce grip on the ear. The CD contains three other Blake pieces, ending with a discreet Snowman bonus.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2011

On music’s international scene Howard Blake has become known as the composer of the haunting melody Walking on Air from the children’s story, The Snowman. Born in the south of England, and educated at London’s Royal Academy of Music, he has worked in every genre, though much of his output has been in highly effective film scores frequently giving rise to works for the concert hall. A Month in the Country is a typical example, a five-movement string suite drawn from the film score score subsequently arranged for string quartet. Carrying an opus number of six hundred and eleven indicates his prolific catalogue, the present disc covering the the past thirty-five years, the earliest being a previously unperformed String Trio from 1975 and sets the scene for a composer wedded to tonality seen through twentieth century eyes. Even at this juncture we find his affinity with the ‘commercial’ world of the silver screen, its shifting moods dressed in an appealing garb. Two years later he wrote a short ballet score for television, Leda and the Swan. Its erotic nature and near nudity bringing such a shocked reaction that it has remained unperformed since then. Moving forward to 2008 for Spieltrieb, a word that translates into today’s term of ‘lateral thinking’, Blake comments that he did not write in any conventional quartet form but simply used whatever came into his mind. The result is in effect a rhapsody, rather more modern in its sonorities than is normal for Blake. We finally have, by way of a short encore, a quartet version of Walking on Air. All are here receiving their world premiere recordings, the Edinburgh Quartet patently enjoying the music in recorded sound that is exceptionally good.

MusicWeb International, June 2011

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 and reviewed here.

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 Janáček’s pen: impressive, in a word.

The String Trio dates from the same period as Blake’s Piano Quartet (see review), 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 Dvořák 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…

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