Today’s service of Choral Evensong from Wells Cathedral—part of the New Music Wells Festival—broke the moribund trend of these broadcasts to celebrate English banalities in aspic, and revelled in a collection of new choral music.
It got off to a poor start, however; the American composer Gary Davison‘s setting of a text by Thomas Ken, Glory to thee, my God, this night, did little more than execute the most perfunctory and predictable word-painting; it’s an utter waste of a really rather lovely text—do we really need yet more composers incessantly churning out this banal brand of generic guff?
Following the first hymn, though, wonder of wonders: the alternative canticles! It’s incredibly rare these days to find a cathedral that actually remembers these alternatives exist, rarer still that composers see fit to set them to music. Kudos to Wells and to Judith Bingham for being prepared to break with Anglican tradition and be imaginative! The first canticle in Bingham’s Wells Service (which was premièred in June of last year), Cantate Domino, deliberately lacks momentum, and while at first it seems awkward, lending the music a tendency to appear to meander (this may have been due to the choir’s seemingly over-cautious delivery), it proved itself over time. In opting for a meditative, even prayerful approach, Bingham has created a deceptively potent setting that treats each phrase, each word in fact, with real reverence; hearing the text put so emphatically first was a real delight. The second canticle, Deus misereatur, takes a similar approach, and as it unfolded, these two sublime settings—and this may appear a strange thing to say—seemed almost too interesting to be contained in an act of worship; i felt like i needed time to pause and be silent after them, which is hardly possible in today’s get-everything-done-in-an-hour liturgical philosophy. They’re more than mere canticles, they’re anthems, and one can imagine they’d almost make a more powerful impact in a concert environment, where they can be appreciated rather differently. Church music doesn’t often suggest itself like that.
Philip Wilby‘s new anthem Ascension is decidedly impactful and makes for a grand statement. Receiving its world première in this service, Wilby clearly has a whale of a time exploring Thomas Ken’s Ascensiontide text. Thankfully, it escapes the spectre of Finzi—thank goodness God is Gone Up now has some decent competition—and while its language is sometimes just a tad too familiar, the way Wilby unfolds the text is unpredictable and at times, engagingly strange; there’s an almost lumbering quality at times that, surprisingly, fits perfectly.
The service ended with one of Messiaen‘s most weirdly gestural pieces, the last movement of his 1984 cycle Livre du Saint Sacrement, ‘Offrande et Alleluia Final’. Being one of my favourite composers, it would be churlish to whinge, but Messiaen does seem rather too obvious a choice for what purports to be a festival of new music. All the same, it’s given a dazzling performance by (I assume) Matthew Owens, who handles the hectic toccata passages with ease, and doesn’t shy away from the wondrous hammer blow chords at the end.
I haven’t mentioned the cathedral choir much, and that’s for the simple reason that their performances throughout were excellent, utterly convincing, which was all the more impressive in repertoire like this.