Howard Blake might be classified as neo-Romantic (with the derogatory implications that the term sometimes carries) because of his gift for melody and the conservatism of his tonal harmonic language, which for the most part sounds comfortably situated in the English pastoralism of the first decades of the 20th century. But because of his absolute mastery of his craft and the fact that his musical ideas are so often really attractive, he seems to transcend that category. Most importantly, he sounds like a composer who is entirely at ease in his own skin; he is not trying to be anything other than what he is, and that gives his music an unselfconscious naturalness and spontaneity. Blake's 2008 string quartet Spieltraub (a term from Schiller meaning "the inclination to play") is a perfect example of his approach and the artfulness of his gift. He cites Mozart's comment that playing music is, after all, play, and the piece is a result of his letting himself just have fun writing whatever came into his head, without working to make it fit any standard form. What might have been a random-sounding, one-thing-after-another ramble works beautifully because Blake's instincts are so good that the piece feels organic and entirely satisfying. The other quartets, a suite from the film score, A Month in the Country, the ballet Leda and the Swan, and the String Trio have the same unforced, organic quality. The album concludes with Blake's quartet arrangement of his deservedly biggest hit, the evocative, luminous song "Walking in the Air" from the 1982 animated film The Snowman. The Edinburgh Quartet gives stalwart readings that are more than adequate but less than sublime. It performs well as an ensemble, but lacks the creamy tonal warmth and brilliant precision that are hallmarks of the highest level of quartet playing. In particular, the quiet, high-lying fade-outs that Blake is fond of at the ends of movements often sound shaky. He writes so beautifully for the instruments that the listener is left yearning to hear more sumptuous performances of this music. Naxos' sound is clean, clear, and present.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|A Month in the Country, Op. 611|
|String Trio, Op. 199|