Blackford: The Great Animal Orchestra

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Blackford,Saint-Saens
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: The Great Animal Orchestra; Carnival of the Animals (orch. Blackford)
PERFORMER: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Martyn Brabbins
CATALOGUE NO: NI 6274

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No one obviously told British composer Richard Blackford about the show business adage ‘Never work with children or animals’. Courageously, and with technical flair, he forged ahead with The Great Animal Orchestra, the world’s first symphony written for orchestra and a sonic menagerie (recorded in the wild by bio-acoustician Bernie Krause). Over five movements gibbons, hunchback whales and company chatter and cry while a conventional orchestra, the dominant force, chews away at ostinato patterns or spins its own atmospheric variations.

While nothing Blackford composes beats the wild life for personality or unfettered musicality, the orchestra helps give the central movements a weight and force absent elsewhere. And there are moments of genuine magic: microtonal wolves blending with horns; the tree frogs’ croaking rhythms bleeding into a percussion combo. Blackford and Krause’s eco-friendly piece might make only small steps towards saving the planet, but it can still inspire, entertain and spread wonder.

More creatures appear in Blackford’s beefy symphonic version of The Carnival of Animals. Congenial substitutes are found for Saint-Saëns’s colourings: the plodding elephant is now a contrabassoon; a horn impersonates the gliding swan. But despite the BBC orchestra’s good work, it’s hard not miss the witty intimacy and clarity of the original scoring.

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Geoff Brown