Britten Sinfonia
Elizabeth Watts soprano


This is an extraordinary set of songs by Richard Blackford to poems by Nadia Anjuman (1980-2005). Originally written in Dari, they have been most skilfully translated into English, and the texts must be regarded as inseparable from the poet’s life. Born in Afghanistan, she was 15-years-old when the Taliban captured Herat. At once women’s liberties all but disappeared.

Facing a future with no hope of an education, she attended an underground educational circle called the Gold Needle Sewing School. Under the guise of learning to sew, the meetings were actually discussion on literature with Herat academics. If detected, the punishment could be imprisonment, torture or execution. 

When the Taliban was overthrown, while completing her degree, she published her first collection of poems. She married into a family who held that, because she was a woman, her writing brought disgrace upon them, yet she continued. At 25 she was beaten to death by her husband.

Richard Blackford has chosen a group of poems which vividly expresses the stark contrasts in Anjuman’s own life. The joy in her own creativity, black despair at the absence of personal freedom, and even the possibility of self-destruction. The effect of setting such texts should be unremittingly bleak, but that is not the case.

The wide emotional range allows the composer to exploit all the expressive possibilities. In the first song, Turmoil, which lasts less than 5 minutes, the beginning is a celebration of the night and its beauty which moves to a yearning to be free and a plea for help. The quiet opening becomes more agitated and insistent, and the music more dissonant, almost overpowering the vocal line.

Not only are there strong contrasts within the songs, but the individual settings are very different from each other.  This ensures that, despite the tragedy inherent in the poems, the impression that remains with the listener is one of an affirmation of faith in the resilience of the human spirit, and the power of creativity to sustain that spirit.

Richard Blackford’s settings are a remarkable achievement; the style is unmistakeably contemporary, yet lyrical. The writing for the strings is masterly, deeply expressive, yet austere in its monochrome colouring. Elizabeth Watts is thrillingly assured in her command of the idiom and her tone is never less than beautiful. The Britten Sinfonia produce a rich and varied tonal palette, and meet all the many challenges in the writing with complete confidence. A great achievement.

Review by Martin Strachan