CD Reviews of Music Inspired by William Blake (Mike Westbrook and John Tavener)

Glad day: Settings of William Blake

Mike Westbrook

ENJA Records ENJ 93762

The booklet accompanying this two-CD collection describes it as a ‘work in process’. This is certainly the case. Many of the songs here come from ‘Tyger’, Adrian Mitchell’s musical about William Blake, which was first staged in 1971 by the National Theatre Company. Later the same material was used in ‘Glad Day, the Thames TV drama which was produced to mark the 150th anniversary of Blake’s death in 1977. Since then, these pieces have been performed, developed, supplemented and revised. What we have here is the latest version in their most complete form.

Fourteen pieces are included on the CDs. These vary considerably in length; from just over two minutes to nearly seventeen. As is perhaps the norm, there is a good sprinkling of the Songs of Innocence and Experience: Holy Thursday, A Poison Tree, The Tyger and the Lamb. However, inspiration is also taken from passages of longer prophecies (Milton, Jerusalem), notebook poems (Long John Brown) and even paintings (Glad Day). The style is Jazz here, which is perhaps a perfect genre to capture the fire and energy of Blake’s words. A full range of emotional responses is offered.

The first CD kicks off with Glad Day which sets a tone of colour and symmetry to match Blake’’ image. The music positively crackles with energetic delight before dying away in a single drumbeat. London then starts in ominous piano tones before building to a climatic sax solo. Throughout the pieces, words are either recited over music or given a melody line. Let the Slave also includes The Price of Experience and is offered as an urgent plea for compassion and justice in the intense experience which life provides. After this powerful piece, Song of Spring is constructed around a children’s choir. The music here is light and breezy, evoking birdsong and the sunshine of springtime.

Helpful liner notes offer a guide to how each piece expresses elements of Blake’s work. The first CD ends with a veritable tour de force constructed around Holy Thursday. Here, the sentiment is one of indignation. A stark piano introduction is matched by a stark voice before the band join forces for a powerful crescendo. The music is often dissonant but never loses touch with structure and form.

The second CD includes The Tyger and the Lamb, here combined and used, originally as a dialogue between William and Catherine. Again, the children’s choir is employed to great effect. Each piece on the CDs is a rich tapestry of sound, and each too quite distinct. A Poison Tree is positively vaudeville and, certainly, many of the pieces do clearly show their theatrical backgrounds as they each project a clear mood or sentiment. The Human Abstract is another pièce de résistance. Here, an extended instrumental treatment is offered, switching in mood and alternating between swing and improvisation. The collection ends with two pieces based around passages from Jerusalem. These are well chosen and both are based on piano and choir. The latter brings the album to a close, chanting the words ‘Holiness to the Lord’,  the tones of which seem to continue to echo long after the music has stopped.

The musicians stated intent is to bring ‘Blake’s rich strangeness into our experience’. The music here is a perfect complement to this endeavour


Eternity’s Sunrise

John Tavener

The Academy of Ancient Music

Harmonia mundi 907231

To pass from the modern jazz treatments of Mike Westbrook to the sound world of John Tavener is certainly to take a step into the sublime. Tavener, along with Arvo Pärt, has made a name for himself in recent years as a pioneer of music for the ‘new gnosis’. Anyone who knows his music will find few surprises on this disc. In working with an orchestra dedicated to period instruments, it marks a first for him. The marriage is clearly a fitting one.

There is one new Tavener piece on this CD: Eternity’s Sunrise, which takes its inspiration from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. Tavener quotes the lines: ‘To see the world in a grain of sand – Alleluia’. He also quotes from St. Gregory of Nazianzus: ‘I shared in the image of God, but did not keep it safe; the Lord shares in my flesh, so as to save the image, and to make the flesh immortal’.

Indeed, the mood throughout the CD includes sentiments of loss and death as well as love and eternity. Eternity’s Sunrise is dedicated to the memory of Princess Diana. Tavener explains: ‘The concept of solo soprano(representing earth) at ground level; handbells (representing the angels) at an intermediate position; and the main baroque ensemble (representing heaven) at high level fitted exactly with the Blake text’. The soprano in question on this recording is Patricia Rozario. The texture of her voice is a delight in itself and seems perfectly matched to the heavenly soundscape which Tavener creates. His tonal world may be Greek, but this music lacks the rough edges and primitive intensity of Greek liturgical chant. Nevertheless, one is bathed in huge swathes of sacred sonority. As Tavener states it: ‘the music should be played with quiet joy, as a day of sunshine and calm, full of gentleness and calm’. This is a highly attractive invitation!

Also included, are previously released pieces arranged for the Academy – Song of the Angel, Petra: A Ritual Dream, and Sappho: Lyrical Fragments. It also includes a rearranged Funeral Canticle, dedicated to the memory of his father. The spiritual message is further made with the inclusion of two plates (8 and 9) from Blake’s Job: ‘Let the day perish wherein I was born’; ‘Then a spirit passed before my face, the hair of my flesh stood up’. The CD is certainly an experience.