David Blake: Violin Concerto; In Praise of Krishna

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British composer David Blake, born in 1936, is best known for his 1977 opera Toussaint, based on the life of the Haïtian revolutionary who defeated Napoleon's armies and created the first black republic in the western hemisphere. Blake matured in an era in which serialism was ascendant, and while he has employed it prominently, he has adhered to it less rigorously than some of his contemporaries, such as Alexander Goehr and Harrison Birtwistle. His Violin Concerto (1976) has its share of prickly angularity, but it is punctuated by moments of elegiac lyricism. The solo part is self-effacingly incorporated into the orchestral fabric, giving a piece a satisfying integrality. Violinist Iona Brown, accompanied by Norman del Mar conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, plays with warmth and agility. The subject matter of In Praise of Krishna (1973), a young girl's ecstasy and despair over her love of Krishna, inevitably prompts comparisons with John Harbison's Mirabai Songs (1982). There are some surprising similarities besides the literary ones -- an overriding lyricism, with extravagantly effusive vocal lines; sensuous harmonies; spare but exotic and highly colorful orchestration; and strongly differentiated sections dictated by the protagonist's wildly fluctuating mood swings. Harbison's cycle is somewhat more audience friendly -- his harmonic language is more tonally rooted, and his songs have a stronger sense of pulse. Blake's songs are far less familiar than Harbison's, but their intoxicating lyrical impulse and gorgeous vocal writing make them pieces that deserve to be more broadly known. Teresa Cahill sings them ecstatically, with sumptuous tone, embodying the protagonist's passionate obsession. The songs should be of strong interest to fans of coloratura vocal music that flourishes on the frontier just beyond traditional tonality.

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