World premiere of Howard Blake’s The Snowman Fantasia – Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner

The Snowman Fantasia, Op.632 [world premiere]
Flute Concerto, Op.493a
Clarinet Concerto, Op.329a
Serenade for Wind Octet, Op.419

Howard Blake (narrator)

Michael Cox (flute)

James Burke (clarinet)

Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields
Sir Neville Marriner

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 25 November, 2014
Venue: St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

Sir Neville Marriner. Photograph: who wish to be taken seriously, whose music is almost exclusively tonal and who write concertos which are called concertos, rather than pieces tagged with titles taken from last week’s headlines or a phrase from last year’s No.1 hit record, and who also have had a considerable success in what might be termed the ‘crossover’ market, have a hard time of it in today’s critical climate.

In the UK Howard Blake (born 1938) might be considered to be the prime example of such a composer, for his million-selling hit song ‘Walking in the Air’ has become a perennial Christmas favourite, and the show from which it comes – itself based upon a wonderful television film of 30 years ago, in which Blake’s music was first heard – is now firmly established as a Christmas ‘must-see’ (in London, at the Peacock Theatre) for children, quite literally, of all ages.

The song itself was a genuine inspiration for Blake, coming to him whilst walking his dog over Hampstead Heath, and it is one which has formed the basis for a series of subsequent works from his pen, transcribed and reworked many times, but always to new and expressive effect.

Howard BlakeThe genre of English composers writing for string orchestra is a long and distinguished one, perhaps more often encountered in the music of the last hundred years or so, and the suggestion by Sir Neville Marriner that Blake should write a work based on the stage show was the impetus for this latest incarnation of the composer’s ongoing fascination with that Hampstead Heath inspiration.

Blake is no stranger to writing well and idiomatically for strings: his Violin Concerto and Cello Concerto, especially, attest to that gift, as do his recent String Quartets and other works, and in The Snowman Fantasia he has taken the musical ideas a stage further, although it appears there is one further stage to go. Originally, the idea was that there would be no speech, or singing, in this Fantasia: here would be an opportunity to listen to the music – after a creative period of over 30 years – by itself, “recollected in tranquillity” as Wordsworth has it.

Although that may have been the initial idea, on this occasion we did have a narrator – Blake himself – sitting to one side of Marriner, telling us of the salient points in the story against the orchestral background. I am not entirely sure that this worked in practice: certainly, pieces such as Peter and the Wolf and Babar the Elephant successfully combine narrative with music, but so fascinating was Blake’s succession of quasi-symphonic variations on his unforgettable theme, and his excellent treatment of the material in orchestral guise that I found myself listening more to the musical background-foreground than to the occasional spoken text.

The result was faintly disappointing, for I am convinced that a performance of the continuous half-hour score alone would demonstrate the composer’s mastery of his craft and of his material – especially one as well-played as this was. The ASMF strings were simply superb, and Marriner’s conducting was as dapper and sprightly as ever – did he truly celebrate his 90th-birthday earlier this year, and has he really just returned from a tour of China and Hong Kong? It seemed incredible – but he did, and he has.

The new Fantasia was followed by the four-movement Flute Concerto from 1996, in which the brilliant and sensitive soloist was Michael Cox. This work is essentially a group of studies in lighter vein – not ‘light music’ as such, but perfectly capturing the sylvan nature of the instrument. It must be immensely rewarding to play, and the performance itself was exceptional in every regard, as was that of the rather deeper three-movement Clarinet Concerto which was given in the revised version of 2011. Readers may know Thea King’s Hyperion recording of the original version (1984, the Concerto was originally written for her), but this revision deserves serious attention. It is a more probing work than the Concerto for Flute, having chamber orchestral accompaniment, the emotional expression more intense yet never angst-ridden. James Burke gave a superlative account of the very impressive score.

In between these two Concertos came Blake’s splendid Serenade for Wind Octet (1990), a subtly impressive score. Its three movements are quite beautifully laid out for the instruments. Germs of melodies are used and re-used in successive movements, giving the Serenade an organic unity that is notable in itself and which suits the nature of the music excellently. The piece is a beautiful and attractive addition to a repertoire that is in serious danger of dying out. The performance, given without a conductor, was delightfully engrossing. One doesn’t hear orchestral and instrumental playing of this calibre every night of the week.

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