Yesterday’s Choral Evensong was a treat for lovers of modern Church music, being a live broadcast of the final service in this year’s London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, from St Pancras Church. As such, it was interesting overview of current practise, as well as a blessed relief from the generic fare too often dished up at these services.
Anthony Powers‘ introit had its moments, despite its excited chord progressions sometimes sounding arbitrary; there’s an earnest, heartfelt quality in his setting, sounding (as all Church music should) “sung to God”. Peter Nardone‘s Responses were pedestrian—getting the choir to sing loudly doesn’t equate to “joyful”; more about these later. The office hymn had a pleasing grandiosity to it; i’d not heard the tune “Straker” before—if anyone can tell me who it’s by, i’d be very grateful. Director of Music (and Festival Artistic Director) Christopher Batchelor clearly couldn’t resist including his own music, which was a shame as his chants for the Psalms were mundane and predictable. The latter of the two had some interest to it, but the music and the performance did little to capture the power of Psalm 94’s words. Why composers aren’t doing more interesting things with the Psalms is beyond me.
Sebastian Forbes usually comes up trumps, but the Magnificat in his new St Pancras Canticles is, frankly, weird. i suspect it’s intended to be joyous, but the rapid melismatic writing tends more towards hysteria than anything else (it’s redolent of the crowd from Bach’s St John Passion, another scene filled with hysteria). The Nunc, by contrast, delivered a much more pleasing rendition of its text, a beautiful account of resignation and relief, although it’s yet another that fails to address the joy permeating Simeon’s words. i hope the Festival (who commissioned these canticles) feel they got their money’s worth; if the Mag could be toned down a bit, it might capture the mood for which Forbes is clearly striving.
Moving into the prayers, Nardone’s Responses became even more triadic and simplistic; perhaps old-fashioned, but at this stage in the service, perhaps forgiveable. Gabriel Jackson‘s anthem Hymn to the Trinity was a shaft of light within the service; Jackson’s writing for voices is among the best i’ve heard, and not surprisingly that was the case here. The choir sang unaccompanied, exploring a rich harmonic palette, and demonstrating a real sense of contemporary awe from age-old words. Easily the highlight of the service.
The hymn tune “Holborn” sounded rather out of place among all this, plodding and anachronistic; i don’t know when it was composed, but i suspect it’s more recent than it sounds. Nonetheless, it would have made for a suitably rousing conclusion, but then Christopher Batchelor’s music returned in an over-long so-called “motet”. His setting of the ancient Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum was, i suppose, inoffensive enough, but (like so many composers of Church music) he’s far too fond of the parallel minor thirds that Herbert Howells made so magical. The scope of William Bolcom‘s voluntary—his Free Fantasia on ‘O Zion, haste’ and ‘How firm a foundation’—reminded me of Tournemire, which is no bad thing; it’s a piece prepared to meander and take its time exploring the material, rather than merely covering up the noise of the congregation walking out. To that end (congregations take note), it demands to be listened to; there’s just a touch of the wurlitzer towards its conclusion, but nonetheless, it’s a fascinating, jubilant composition.