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Richard BLACKFORD (b. 1954)
Blewbury Air (2020)
Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Adrian Farmer (piano)
rec. June 2020, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI1570 [12:06]

The village of Blewbury is situated in the Berkshire Downs in Oxfordshire. It’s about 14 miles south of Oxford. The composer Richard Blackford has lived there for many years and in his booklet note he says that the house in which he lives is by a wildlife-rich small lake in the heart of the village. It sounds idyllic and while the image of the skylark that features on the front of the booklet is most attractive, I wish it had been possible to have instead a picture of Blewbury itself, although, as we shall see, it is possible to view elsewhere some images of the village that inspired the music. Blackford describes Blewbury Air, which he composed n the summer of 2019 as “a love song to the village”.

The present recording of Blewbury Air, which was made on 5 June 2020, was in fact the work’s first performance. The recording was made while the UK was under Covid-related restrictions but we’re told that strict Covid protocols were observed and, in fact, a small-scale work such as this is well-suited to performance under a social distancing regime. We’re told that the recording session was the first opportunity for these musicians to perform, albeit without an audience, for several months. I imagine that must have been very welcome to both of them.

Blewbury Air has three short movements. The first is ‘By the Water’s Edge’ and it’s entirely appropriate that much of the piano part in particular is rippling in character. Right at the outset we hear a wide-ranging and generous cantabile melody voiced by the cello. This very attractive idea recurs several times. Elsewhere, there’s a good deal of busy writing for both instruments. It’s a very attractive movement and one that effortlessly conveys watery images to the listener.

The central movement is ‘Incantation with Bells’. First, we hear what the composer describes as “a wistful, pentatonic cello theme”. That’s unaccompanied. When the piano begins to play you won’t be surprised to learn that the instrument plays bell-like chords; indeed, a substantial amount of the piano’s contribution throughout mimics the sound of bells. The cello’s melodic lines in this movement are plaintive in character. The two instruments combine and eventually achieve an intense and powerful climax. It seems to me that there’s a considerable amount of feeling behind this music.

The final movement, ‘The Wind in the Branches’ is much the shortest. Both instruments have vigorous material; this wind is very energetic. It seemed to me that the music evokes the impression of the wind that blows in autumn, dislodging the leaves from the trees.

Richard Blackford has made a short YouTube film in which he introduces Blewbury Air. I deliberately refrained from watching that until this review was nearly finished because I wanted to form my own impressions of the music. Interestingly, though the third movement suggested to me an autumn wind the images we see in the film show trees in full leaf during the summer; that just goes to show that we can all respond to music in different ways. I’d recommend watching the film. Each movement is discussed and you’ll hear extracts from the music. Crucially, you’ll see some of the village scenes that inspired Blewbury Air.
 
Richard Blackford’s tribute to his home village is an attractive and well-imagined composition. He could scarcely wish for finer advocacy than Raphael Wallfisch and Adrian Farmer provide in their excellent performance.

This CD single is initially only available for streaming or download; it will be released as a CD single in Spring 2021 (but see note below). For review purposes I listened to a CD so I’m afraid I can’t comment on the digital-only aspects as, for instance, Brian Wilson would do. What I can say, though, is that on CD the recording is excellent. Antony Smith, the engineer, has recorded both instruments in very credible, truthful sound. The balance between piano and cello is well-judged. The booklet contains a useful note by the composer.

John Quinn

Note

We have just been advised by Nimbus that, due to popular demand, the CD release of Blewbury Air has been brought forward and it is now available in that format too.



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