Howard Blake / London Voices / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Howard Blake: The Passion of Mary; Four Songs of the Nativity

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British composer Howard Blake is best known for his film scores, including The Lords of Discipline, Flashman, and especially, The Snowman, which includes the memorable song "Walking in the Air." He has spent much of his career writing for the church and has created a substantial body of work for chorus. His hour-long oratorio, The Passion of Mary (his Op. 577), dates from 2006. Originally conceived of as a Stabat Mater, Blake expanded the piece to encompass a broader picture of Mary's life, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection, concluding with a Salve Regina, using a variety of Biblical, liturgical, and literary texts in English and Latin. Although he embraces the styles of a variety of eras, from the medieval to the modern, his writing is steadfastly conservative and seldom ventures into territory more harmonically challenging than Vaughan Williams. The structure is conventional, as well, with the familiar use of recitatives, lyrical solos, and choruses. While each of the sections is attractive in its own terms, the whole fails to hang together as a particularly coherent entity. The impression the piece makes is hobbled by the performances of the soloists, most of whose deficiencies draw attention away from the music rather than giving life to it. As Mary, soprano Patricia Rozario is secure in her middle register, but when she moves toward the top of her range, she sounds wobbly and screechy. Vocal ensemble London Voices and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the composer, deliver assured performances, and the purely choral and orchestral sections of the work are easier to enjoy. Blake seems more in his element in the Four Songs of the Nativity from 1990. The choral anthems, for small choir and brass ensemble, are entirely successful and are warmly and simply melodic. The sound can be very quiet and very loud, and lacks warmth.

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