12 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Blackford – VOICES OF EXILE (C. Wyn-Rogers, G. Kunde, G. Finley; Nimbus Alliance NI 6264)

Richard Blackford - VOICES OF EXILE (Nimbus Alliance NI 6264)

RICHARD BLACKFORD (b. 1954): Voices of ExileCatherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Gregory Kunde, tenor; Gerald Finley, baritone; New London Children’s Choir; The Bach Choir; Philharmonia Orchestra; David Hill, conductor [Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, UK, 20 – 22 April 2005; Nimbus Alliance NI 6264; 1CD, 60:36; Available from Nimbus Alliance/Wyastone, Amazon (UK), Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​There are in every life, be it that of a prince or a plumber, sentiments for which words and even thoughts are inadequate. There are emotions that cannot be conveyed by greeting cards, e-mails, or text messages; feelings that may be as universal as the fear of dying but are nonetheless too personal for communication. It is these things, these imperceptible particles of humanity, that define whole generations and give rise to evil some hearts and annihilate it in others. There are among the atrocities of this world no privations, no punishments, no visions more cruel than isolation. This is not to kill but to take a life still enthralled with living and throttle it, not to murder or mutilate but to remove from a social organism the sole source of its survival. Of such despair is born song. When man is denied the company of his society, he must maintain communication even with himself and in his song say, 'This I shall sing unto all the world, and you will know my voice.' Song is the solace for the child who cries out but whose mother never comes, for the lover whose love is never returned, for the refugee whose homeland remains only in a melody. It is the stillness of the moment before death and the deafening silence of the hour of rebirth. Those things that cannot be said must be sung, and these are the songs of Voices of Exile.

Combining solo and choral singing and orchestrations in the tradition of the great oratorios of the 18th and 19th Centuries with recordings of both folk singing and recitations of poetic texts, Richard Blackford’s score plumbs crushing depths of desperation and despair but also offers an unbroken thread of hope. Mr. Blackford’s compositional style is unmistakably modern but accessible in the best sense, and there are passages that possess resonant tonality that harkens back to the musical environments of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. The work’s Prelude and five parts—Memories of Home, Journeys, Prison, Exile, and Freedom—depict in an hour that seems mere seconds the complete cycle of disaster, displacement, disenfranchisement, and liberation. For the past half-century or so, the use of recorded music, voices, and extraneous sounds has been prevalent in Classical Music, often with regrettable and at times risible results, but the intelligence with which Mr. Blackford integrates taped passages—a dolorous Bengali folksong, sung by Kamla Chaudhuri; the chanting of Somali singer Osman Dugleh; a recitation by Tibetan poet Gergyi Tarring Gonpo; a reading by Chilean poet Maria Eugenia Bravo Calderara; Tanya Czarovska's singing of a Macedonian folksong; and an ensemble of voices speaking the words 'Exile has no frontiers' in several languages—is exceptional. Interspersing passages from the poets of conflict-torn regions with the principal text by Tony Harrison, Mr. Blackford wisely chose to set all of the excerpted poems in English translations. Hearing the juxtaposition of the sung texts in English with the taped readings in the original languages both heightens the sense of universality of suffering and intensifies the perception of isolation that shapes the dramatic energy of Voices of Exile. David Hill conducts with a distinct mastery of the music, pacing each of the five Parts with attention to details of scoring and nuances of text. Under his leadership, the ugliness of hate and violence are revealed with unapologetic power, but the beauty of hope is never fully hidden. Maestro Hill's efforts are seconded by committed performances by the New London Children's Choir, The Bach Choir, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Britain of course has one of the world's finest traditions of training children's voices, and the best of that tradition is put to the test in Voices of Exile. Mr. Blackford makes insightful use of children's voices, and the young choristers of the New London Children's Choir respond with poised, pleasing singing. The singing of The Bach Choir is equally fluent and fluid, moments of force en masse and chamber-like passages handled with equal expertise, not least in the Passacaglia and Fugue in Part Two. The critical writing for the solo violin in the Prelude and Epilogue is splendidly executed by the uncredited violinist (the Orchestra’s concertmaster, presumably), and throughout the performance the Philharmonia personnel distinguish themselves with playing of great involvement and sensitivity.

In both the complement of soloists and small details of musical structure, Mr. Blackford’s score displays a kinship with Sir Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The integrity of Mr. Blackford’s writing for voices also owes something to the example of Elgar, and there are occasional reminiscences of Finzi, Britten, and Tippett. Mr. Blackford’s vocal lines exhibit an unique concept of melodic construction, however, and there is nothing derivative in Voices of Exile. The solo lines in the Prelude are sung with great expressivity by American tenor Gregory Kunde, one of the foremost exponents of bel canto. In recent seasons, Mr. Kunde has increasingly taken on heavier rôles with great success, and his singing in Voices of Exile is a telling blend of bel canto grace and more overtly dramatic utterance. In ‘Fleeing’ (Somalia), the first movement of Part Two, Mr. Kunde’s singing is superb, conveying exhaustion and wavering resolve with tones that never tire or waver from pitch and attractiveness. Mr. Kunde’s lines in ‘Nigeria’ are delivered with spellbinding immediacy, propelling the harsh narrative to a wrenching climax. Here, his invigorating performance blends with the potent singing of Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, whose voicing of the lines depicting genocide are all the more chilling for being so beautifully sung. The wonder portrayed in Mr. Finley’s singing in ‘Memories of Tibet’ and ‘Crossing the Frontier’ (Tibet) is heartening, and the solemn resignation that fills his performance of ‘Neither here nor there’ (Bosnia) is unsparing, particularly in the radiant sadness of his delivery of the lines ‘I am not really here, and over there I am no more.’ British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings with earthy severity in ‘Private Soldier’ (Chile), and the heartbreak of her storytelling in ‘Yemma’ (Algeria) is haunting. In ‘My Wish’ (Kurdistan), she and Mr. Kunde duet with incredible sensuality, phrasing ‘I make for you a bed of sweet violets, My arms entwine you as honeysuckle’ with almost unbearable affection. Uniting in ‘Daughter of the Desert’ (Angola), the three soloists meet the demands of Mr. Blackford’s music exquisitely, blending their voices in engrossing ensemble over the adult and children’s choruses. To Mr. Kunde falls the Epilogue, a setting of Tony Harrison’s ‘Poem.’ As in the Prelude, the challenging tessitura gives Mr. Kunde little trouble, and the refinement of his singing of ‘The love moth seeks the flame that men must light and light again’ completes the cycle of the musical and dramatic progression with lucidity and expansive vindication of the survival instinct of humanity.

Richard Blackford proves a composer with something valid to say, and he says it with uncompromising poignancy in Voices of Exile. The work’s subject matter inspired the composer to produce a score of ambivalent but apposite beauty, and that score inspired a masterful group of musicians to a performance that meaningfully intones the songs of voices silenced by inhumanity. It is a performance that memorializes the basic longing of people for connection and endurance with vivid musicality. In ways large and small, the voices of exile are the voices of all men, and Voices of Exile enables them to be heard over the cacophony of injustice that would extinguish them.