So here's how I end up spending too much money on CDs. I hear a recording by an artist or group I really enjoy and then start exploring. And one thing leads to another and I discover a new composer or two. Such is the case with Richard Blackford. I stumbled upon a disc of his Violin Concerto and Clarinet Quintet played by members of Conchord, whose disc of Poulenc's chamber music I recently listened to. While not all that impressed with that disc of "serious" music, here I am with another disc of Blackford's music, which looks interesting and intriguing.
I was afraid this program would be rather gimmicky too. And there certainly is an element of that to it. But I was actually pleasantly surprised.
Getting to it - Blackford's original music on offer here essentially sounds like movie music. It's descriptive and colorful and...well, perhaps not quite ready for the concert hall. The Great Animal Orchestra Symphony is comprised of 5 movements, which, taken as a whole, sounds very much like a good film score (music from John Williams to horror movie classics and everything in between came to mind frequently), combined with all sorts of pre-recorded wild animal and (mostly) bird sounds juxtaposed upon it. And when you know what to expect, and you know what's coming, it's not too objectionable.
A lot of the actual orchestral writing is very good - effective and interesting in a Jurassic Park kind of way, with all the bird calls. Unfortunately, the novelty of the animal sounds wears off quickly and becomes too much of a good thing real fast. And in the end, it simply goes on too long. What I did find objectionable, however, is the use of what the booklet identifies as a "Sampler" - some device which sounds very much like a flexatone - you know, that weird "percussion" instrument which sounds like a bowed handsaw, made popular in UFO movies from the 60s (and its unfortunate prominence in the slow movement of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto). The sound of it here seems out of place among nature and birds and a real orchestra. I thought it to be a completely unnecessary, additional noise intruding on the music.
However, if you can listen past it, this is an enjoyable 30 minutes, perfect for playing in the background while cooking dinner or dusting. I found myself listening up quite often actually. Its colorful orchestration and atmosphere make it interesting and quite pleasant. To be perfectly honest, I'd love to hear this score without all the extra sounds ("noises"). As purely orchestral music, it sounds to be imaginative and appealing. And colorfully orchestrated.
The gimmickry continues next with a new, perhaps unnecessary re-orchestration for full symphony orchestra of Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals, in which the duo pianos are eliminated and rescored into the standard orchestral compliment.
My initial thoughts on it are exactly the same as my feeling about "other" orchestrations of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition:
- 1. It couldn't possibly have been conceived without a prior, intimate knowledge of Ravel's version; and
- 2. Ravel's orchestration is so magnificent, it can't really be improved upon. So...why bother?
While I maintain Saint-Saens knew exactly what he was doing in this piece, this new version is actually better than expected. Blackford's accomplished and imaginative orchestration skills are on full display and many parts are quite effective. Others, though, not so much.
As this transcription may likely be the primary draw for many (myself included), let me provide some brief observations.
Sections which respond very well to the full orchestral treatment:
Introduction/Royal March of the Lion; Hens & Roosters; Kangaroos (delightful woodwind filigree); Aquarium (with a harp providing the arpeggiated accompaniment), Cuckoo; and the Finale (which mercifully doesn't become too big and pompous with the full orchestra in play).
And the ones that don't:
Wild Asses (awfully cumbersome); Elephant (substituting a contrabassoon for the Bass Viol was ill-advised); Persons with Long Ears (the use of harsh, fortissimo violin tremolos was completely unnecessary); Pianists (which loses all meaning and relevance without the piano - contextually and musically - when played by an orchestra); Fossils (which oddly eschews the xylophone and instead uses violins for the main theme, which eliminates the sonic equivalent of bones clanking around. Why?!); and The Swan (scored for a horn and harp, which simply can't match the elegance and grace of a cello).
Tortoises and Aviary are unremarkable.
While I can't see this version gaining favor with live orchestral programming, it certainly fits nicely with the theme of this CD. And as long as one doesn't take it too seriously, it's a lot of fun and a fascinating listen.
Two aspects of this CD make it work even better than it might otherwise have.
1. The orchestra (BBC National Orchestra of Wales) is excellent and the conductor (Martyn Brabbins) is thoroughly committed to bringing it off.
2. The recorded sound is convincing and more natural than would be expected, given the source material of animal/bird sounds mixed in with a symphony orchestra. Only the wolf howls in track 3 sounded comparatively contrived, with an unnatural ambience.
Finally, Nimbus appends the program with a final track consisting of 21 long minutes of recorded conversations between composer and "wild soundscapes" producer, Bernie Krause. So, setting that aside as immaterial on an orchestral disc, we are left with only 53 minutes of actual music. Rather short measure in my estimation. Also worth noting, this album appears to be a CD-R production; however, it played perfectly in my very finicky SACD player and sounded excellent.
This disc is an entertaining enterprise and I give Mr. Blackford kudos for imagination and innovation. It does one good to lighten up a little bit and listen to something a little different once in awhile. And while I admit I really was dusting at times while listening, I found myself smiling often while it was playing.