LaSagrada Familia;  Babel, A Cantata

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ikon Singers and Ensemble
David Hill conductor

Lyrita SRCD432 

Richard Blackford who is 70 this year has, over 40 years, developed an international career. It is to the credit of his teachers, Lutyens, Searle and Henze, all serialist in their own way, that they taught him a craft rather than a dogma. He is a very fine composer of the type of music, we need in the present day.  Accessible, extraordinarily well crafted, and communicative. It is no surprise that he has written over 200 scores for the small and large screen. 

The undoubted influence on Babel A Cantata (2022) is Britten, and that is all to the good, as Britten was a great composer. Mr Blackford has taken his influences and moved them into the 21st century. It was commissioned by the Camden Choir and premièred by them at Cadogan Hall, London, conducted by the composer. It is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chorus and small ensemble – two pianos, organ, and percussion. 

The composer notes that Britten’s Noyes’s Fludde was a favourite work as a youth. The influence is clear, it is cleanly and economically scored, with a clear narrative divided between the soloists and the chorus.  There is even space, as in Britten’s Noye, and St Nicholas, for audience participation, here in the form of the hymn Praise My Soul the King of Heaven. Via the writings of Flavius Josephus the cantata unites the stories of Babel and Noah’s Flood. There is some wonderful writing notably part-way into ‘The rain has ceased’ where there is a beautiful close imitative section. In the ‘And He confounded’ section there is a magical duet which reminded me of Abraham and Isaac from the War Requiem. The singers have wonderfully clear diction throughout which makes the narrative clear throughout. This is a  major addition to the genre.

The La Sagrada Familia Symphony is based on Gaudi’s extraordinary cathedral in Barcelona, only now nearing completion after more than a century. Each movement is not inspired by the structure but by the facades at the entrances, ‘Nativity’, ‘Passion’ and ‘Glory’.  ‘Nativity’ is coloured by brilliant fanfares for the brass and rich writing for the full orchestra.  The ‘Passion’ is violent with much use of the percussion; it is probably the most cinematic of the three movements, but all the more rewarding for that. Think more Mel Gibson than Cecil B. de Mille. ‘Glory’ builds effectively in a Bernstein-like way from a quiet opening to a rapturous end with gongs and bells. The composer shows himself to be a very skilled conductor and the orchestra plays magnificently. This is a work that cries out to be heard in the concert hall. I live in hope.

Review by Paul RW Jackson