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Richard Blackford: Niobe for Violin & Orchestra



“It is a rich score full of dramatic incident, a highly potent performance of a compelling concerto. The soloist’s relationship with the orchestra is inspired by the dramatic unfolding of the myth in a sensuous and colourful score.”  BBC Radio 3 Record Review of Niobe

Niobe was commissioned by the Czech Philharmonic and first performed at the Rudolphinum, Prague, on November 11th 2017. The violin soloist was Tamsin Waley-Cohen and the Czech Philharmonic was conducted by Ben Gernon.

Niobe, daughter of Tantalus and wife of King Amphion of Thebes, gave birth to seven sons and seven daughters. At the annual celebration in honour of Leto, goddess of motherhood and protector of the young, Niobe boasts that she is greater than the goddess by virtue of the fact that Leto only has two children, Apollo and Artemis, whereas she has seven times as many. Leto, enraged, sends Apollo to kill all her sons, and Artemis to kill all her daughters. Her husband Amphion, devestated, kills himself. Niobe is turned into stone on Mount Sipylus and, as she weeps ceaselessly, waters cascade down her rock face. [Richard Blackford]


Richard Blackford: Niobe for Violin & Orchestra


Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen Inspired by the Greek legend, this richly romantic yet tough work showcases the superb musical talents of all concerned Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★) (23 minutes)

Blackford is inspired by the story of Niobe, who boasts that she is greater than the goddess of virtue, Leto, because Niobe has seven sons and seven daughters whereas Leto only has two. Leto sends Apollo and Artemis to kill all Niobe's children, Niobe's husband kills himself devastated, and Niobe is turned to stone and weeps ceaselessly.

The work was very much planned with Tamsin Waley-Cohen in mind and Blackford's discussions with her also touched on the way the story of Niobe relates to the plight of women unfairly treated in our own time, both those suffering under extreme religious laws and the double standard applied to Western women.

Described as a dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, the work is not strictly a violin concerto in the 19th century sense. At times the violinist leads but at other times she is subsumed and Blackford in his programme note describes how the soloist is hounded by the orchestra. The voice of Tamsin Waley Cohen's violin, though, is frequently heard soaring sweetly over the orchestra, and there are sensual as well as dramatic moments.

The work is not strictly programmatic, in the sense that there is no single thread of narrative, instead Blackford divides the piece into four sections, Niobe The Lover, Niobe the Blasphemer, Niobe the Pleader and Niobe the Mourner.

Blackford writes for a large orchestra and this is a richly imaginative and often richly textured work. Underlying everything is a sense of structure (Blackford's note talks about the reverse sonata-form structure and his use of motivic transformation and development). But what the listener will notice first is the richly romantic texture of Blackford's language and his highly developed sense of colour, all within the context of a complex harmonic language which combines lyricism with harmonic complexity.

Yet despite the modernity of Blackford's harmonic style, the sense of romanticism and lyricism is what colours the piece. Perhaps it is the influence of Tamsin Waley Cohen's wonderfully sweet singing violin. And this comes to its own in the eerie stillness of the final movement as well experience Niobe being turned to stone.

The performance from Ben Gernon and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra is exemplary, with no sense that they are finding their way. In fact, the Czech players really illuminate Blackford's writing and give it an inner glow. This is no surprise, the orchestra commissioned the work and they premiered it on 11 November 2017, two days before the recording was made in their home, the Dvorak Hall in the Rudolfinum in Prague.

I am in two minds about the work being issued on its own, as an EP (at suitably reduced cost). It helps you concentrate, and avoids crass populist companion pieces, yet I worry that people will be put off. I certainly hope not, this is a significant achievement from composer, soloist, orchestra and conductor.

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Ben Gernon (conductor)
Recorded in Dvorak Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague on 13 November 2017

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 June 2018


A report from the recording of Richard Blackford's Niobe, with a behind-the-scenes film

I have no idea how many world premiere performances I must have attended by now – certainly, dozens – but there is always a certain frisson to them and I cannot be alone in dreaming of the evening when I attend the unveiling of an undoubted masterpiece that goes on to sweep the world. Of course, sometimes one hears a performance of an established masterpiece so fine, so freshly-minted in conception, that one can almost imagine oneself amongst the original audience – which serves only to feed the thought – ‘maybe this time…’.

At this juncture, I suppose Michael Tippett’s gently autumnal Rose Lake is the nearest I have come to witnessing the birth of a piece that has 'gone mainstream' – or possibly Witold Lutosławski’s mesmerizingly delicate song cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables, premiered at the Proms in 1991. It is no accident that both composers, though radical in their way, embraced the rhythms and harmonies of modernism, whilst retaining a love of melody. Neither wrote abstrusely, or for a faction; and both touched hearts as well as minds.

The same is true of Richard Blackford, whom I first encountered when researching a piece for Gramophone about Not In Our Time, his cantata marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity in New York City. Attending the premiere in Cheltenham on the precise anniversary, I was both profoundly moved by the humane sentiments of the piece and also highly conscious of Blackford’s remarkable combination of compositional virtuosity and personal humility. Fine though the piece was, however, both the subject matter and the forces required to bring the piece to fruition suggested to me this was necessarily a piece for a special occasion. As I travelled to Prague last November for the world premiere and first recording of Niobe, a concertante work for violin and orchestra lasting a little over 20 minutes, I had high hopes that this, in contrast, might be a work well suited to a prominent and permanent place in the mainstream repertoire. I was not disappointed.

Niobe was commissioned by the Czech Philharmonic, their first commission in 11 years, but this premiere had a distinctively English feel to it, with the fine violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen supported by up-and-coming conductor Ben Gernon. The piece draws upon myth, telling the tale of a proud and strong woman brought down by an even stronger woman, the goddess Leto. It is a sad fact – and one not confined to any country or tradition – that the presence of a new and unfamiliar work on a concert programme is rarely a major selling point. Nonetheless, Niobe made 'her' debut to a packed, matinee house and the reception was one of genuine and sustained enthusiasm. Blackford is perhaps best known as a film composer and his idiom in the concert hall too has broad appeal. What marks him out, to my ears, is a determination to engage the listener without compromising – much as those two very different composers of an earlier era, Tippett and Lutosławski, sought to do before him. Niobe is certainly serious, but it is also warm and humane, troubling and moving." - Michael McManus