Seasonal

Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Seasonal | 1 Comment

‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that i particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach. i won’t go into my usual level of depth about the disc due to the fact it includes a setting of my own, and while i’ve long regarded objectivity and impartiality to be pretty mythical and irrelevant, for obvious personal reasons i would of course love everyone to go out and support the disc by buying as many copies as possible.

That being said, while music of this ilk is inevitably going to be a somewhat polarising affair, what makes this collection so worthwhile is its general avoidance of the kind of mawkish sentimentality and blank enthusiasm that one encounters in far, far too much Christmas music. In place of the former are broad, rich harmonic palettes, tonal but occasionally wayward. Andrew Cusworth‘s Of a rose synge we is the most sumptuous example of this, as well as being the most externally calm, though everything about it suggests inner joy and ecstasy. Matthew Coleridge‘s short but expansive and beautiful Balulalow is only marginally less lush, flirting with (but, mercifully, not embracing) the kind of harmonic writing redolent of US choral composers. John Turner‘s brave attempt at a new setting of Away in a Manger (retaining the established rhythmic scheme) is simpler, as is Peter Parshall‘s That yongë child, to gorgeously tranquil effect, while another lullaby, Mark Hewitt‘s Silent Night, rather nonchalantly sets out as though it’s nothing to do with the original carol before a number of dropped hints lead to a thorough reworking of it, its harmonies and rhythms both wonderfully convoluted. My own Infant holy, Infant lowly stays true to the original Polish melody (though using the correct original descending line as opposed to the misprinted version that one usually hears), with new harmonies designed to gently emphasise elements of the text.

However, it’s not all blissed-out devotions and adoration. Read more

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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

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If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and – more importantly – the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 6 Comments

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more

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Eye-watering, but not tears: Fernand Laloux – O salutaris hostia, Tantum ergo

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i’m an occasional listener to BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Only occasional because Evensong, it seems, has got itself stuck – or is deliberately kept – in a rut, where it has languished for at least 50 years (this suspicion was proved some time ago, when a 50-year old recording of Choral Evensong was broadcast, the music being identical to that typical of today’s broadcasts). It’s not just that the choices of music are predictably dull, the music itself is often so weak, that i tend only to tune in when a more discerning taste is being demonstrated. Or – despite my reservations – when the broadcast comes from a Catholic cathedral, when the standard and selection of music is usually exceptional. As it was in September 1999, when the broadcast came from the Brompton Oratory in London, celebrating Second Vespers for the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service was extraordinary, including music by Dupré, Poulenc, Pärt and Tournemire, with the Benediction hymns, O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo, by a composer named Laloux. These settings were remarkably beautiful, but the name was new to me, and a quick search through various musical dictionaries proved fruitless. Keen to explore the pieces with a church choir i was directing at the time, i telephoned the Oratory’s director of music, Patrick Russill, to find out more about this mysterious composer. i forget exactly what he told me, but the essence of it was that this music had only recently come to light, and hadn’t even been properly published yet, hence the lack of information. Russill claimed that, at that time, only the Oratory had permission to perform the music, so i was unable to get hold of any scores. Fortunately, however, i had recorded the broadcast and so, inspired by Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere in similar circumstances, i was able to transcribe the Tantum ergo completely (not, sadly, enough of the O salutaris hostia, due to insufficient clarity of the inner voices), which we performed on a number of occasions. In the intervening years, Belgian composer Fernand Laloux has begun to become more widely known, his scores are now more generally available, and Patrick Russill has recorded the pieces with the Oratory choir. Read more

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Dolour and death; the Way of the Cross, unadorned: Liszt – Via Crucis

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 2 Comments

As i’ve said before, my love of the chorale began in my teenage years with Bach. This love grew after hearing Franz Liszt’s Holy Week cycle, Via Crucis, some years later. Not that chorales are a principal feature of the work; on the contrary, Liszt’s exploration of the Stations of the Cross is primarily a series of organ meditations, occasionally elaborated upon by choir and soloists. To that end, the work is very simple, austere and restrained, almost to the point of seeming – paradoxically – eccentric. Favouring a contemplative approach over a dramatic one, Liszt’s material is at times so bare, so rudely unadorned, that it can seem strange and disorienting, in the same way that churches and cathedrals up and down the land become shocking when, as now, their decorations and ornaments are shrouded in purple cloth. In fact, Liszt takes to the extreme the division of which i spoke yesterday, of emotional detachment, aloof and austere, and emotional engagement, involved and moved. With so much of the music being of the former kind, the appearance of the chorales is all the more striking, seeming to blaze in technicolor against pervading shades of grey. Liszt uses just two chorales, “O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden” and “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid”, both of which (the latter especially) he treats to gorgeous harmonisations. But much of the music follows, literally, the difficult, faltering steps of Christ’s journey; the organ plods, staggers, collapses, laborious and wearied. On a few exquisite occasions, serenity briefly transcends the gloom, like shafts of sunlight puncturing black cloud: as Jesus meets his mother, as Simon of Cyrene assists carrying the cross, as Jesus dies upon it, and as He is taken down from it and buried. While unashamedly ascetic, this is nonetheless a profoundly moving examination of the dolour and death to which the Via Crucis leads. Read more

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The balance of austerity and grief: Victoria – O vos omnes

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One of the greatest difficulties, i feel, with writing music for Holy Week, is the need to be objectively austere, while also expressing some sense of the highly-wrought feelings that pervade the week. i don’t mean in some ghastly “stiff upper lip” way; that would be dishonest and repressed. One must engage with the events recounted in the texts in an intellectual way, grappling with their meaning (the theology if you like), while never forgetting that they are an expression of utter tragedy, a tragedy in which we have all played our part, and so emotions must be given absolutely free reign too. To compose music that sits within, and seeks to interact with, such a darkly complex space, is a challenge indeed. A challenge, it seems, too many composers have attempted – and failed. We were subjected to just such a failure last Sunday at the Abbey: a performance of Arthur Somervell’s The Passion of Christ. It’s not a piece worth speaking of for long, except to say that it was typically Victorian, all wallpaper and soft edges. i don’t take sugar with my Passion, thank you, and Somervell’s was laced with saccharine at every opportunity; Jesus, from the cross, didn’t so much sing as croon. It was revolting, and one can only hope the Abbey makes better quality choices in future.

No such problems with the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria. Victoria has an uncanny gift for producing compositions that strike a perfect, delicate balance, teeming with complexity, abundant in life and interest, while ever keeping the emotions near to the surface. A sumptuous example of that is his setting of the Holy Week text O vos omnes:

O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam, attendite, et videte: Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus. Attendite, universi populi, et videte dolorem meum.
(“O you that pass by, behold, and see: can there be any sorrow like my sorrow? Behold, everyone, and see my sorrow.”) Read more

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Hoping against hope: Thomas Adès – Gefriolsæ me

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It was at a concert in the spring of 1995 that i first encountered the music of Thomas Adès. The piece was Living Toys, and it was significant to my own development as a composer; i came away from the concert with a new vigour, determination and excitement about the music i wanted to create. Tom and i became mild acquaintances, and i even went to spend an afternoon with him in Cambridge, to discuss my work. While i don’t follow his music as closely as then, i still find it fascinating, and feel he’s one of this country’s more interesting composers.

A CD of Living Toys was released in 1998, and tucked quietly onto the end of that disc is a short work for male voices, entitled Gefriolsæ me. The text is an Anglo Saxon rendering of part of a verse from Psalm 51, a psalm that, due to its powerful penitential sentiments, is closely associated with Lent:

Gefriolsæ me of blodum, God hælu mine.
(“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God my saviour.”) Read more

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Passionate, gut-wrenching, but humble: Bach – St John Passion

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Two weeks ago, i was fortunate enough to be at the performance of J. S. Bach‘s St John Passion, given by Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Town Hall. i’ve loved this work since i was a teenager, when a friend lent me a recording of the arias and chorales. It was the one by John Eliot Gardiner, a recording that captures every nuance of the drama as it unfolds, in all its beauty and terror. i bought this recording many years ago, while living in The Hague, and it was also during this time that i attended a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the central Gröte Kerk. The Matthew, while wonderful, is far less demanding (both for performer and listener alike), and it seems appropriate that Bach approaches John’s words with such a radical outlook, as his gospel is surely the most transcendent and impassioned, emotionally, psychologically and theologically. A plethora of composers have explored the Passion accounts, but Bach’s St John Passion still, i feel, outclasses most of them; i am no staunch supporter, nor indeed even an avid listener of Bach, but he taps into something here with an honesty and clarity of vision that is extraordinary. Read more

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Days of wrath and mourning: Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous, Seasonal | 4 Comments

Passion Sunday, and my thoughts move into more sombre, vermilion territory. Not in a morbid sense but, nonetheless, death unavoidably starts to pervade things from now on. and with it, a return to some music that can accurately be said to have changed my life. At the time i first encountered the work – when the world was very much greener and i was far less purple – i was a floundering music student, sat in a large music studio at lunchtime, wanting to hear something new. The school had a reasonable quantity of recordings, so i worked my way through them over many months, beginning love affairs with many composers’ works. On this occasion, i picked up the Grande Messe des Morts of Hector Berlioz, with little idea of what to expect. As the music unfolded (and this really is music that unfolds), i was utterly drawn into Berlioz’ vision, with all its grandeur, terror and awe-struck beauty.

Composed in 1837, it is one of the most radical, ground-breaking choral works ever written (all the more remarkable that it is only Berlioz’ Op.5!). Its instrumentation is astonishing, including quadruple woodwind (but 8 bassoons!), 12 horns, four separate brass bands placed at the four points of the compass, 4 tam-tams, 10 cymbals (!), 108 strings, and a choir stipulated to be at least 210-strong, but Berlioz writes a footnote on the first page of the score saying “If space permits, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased”. But if this is massive music, it is not just in terms of its orchestration; emotionally and spiritually too, there is a vastness to the scope of Berlioz’ vision that is unique among settings of the Requiem (a text set to music far too often). These gargantuan forces are only occasionally unleashed en masse (no pun intended); much of the time, Berlioz explores smaller combinations of instruments, demonstrating that while he may be wild, he is far from reckless. At its first performance and for months afterwards, it was a sensation; he even took the piece on tour, playing selections of movements from the Requiem in concerts throughout Europe. From such a large, eclectic group of instruments, Berlioz extracts remarkable sounds and effects, some of which were invented for this piece (e.g. horns playing cuivré). One effect actually caused some controversy; in the ‘Hostias’, he writes a recurring chord played only by 3 very high flutes and 8 trombones playing deep pedal notes; even into the earlier 20th Century, writers of books on orchestration insisted it was unpleasant and shouldn’t be replicated! Read more

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Music for Epiphany and more

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Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany, and it strikes me as strange that there is so little music written for Epiphanytide. Advent and Christmastide are overflowing with possibilities, but composers have clearly not been inspired by this season. It might be that it’s been somewhat vague until more recent times; certainly, the Anglican church has only got its structure and approach sorted in the last 5 years. But i think it’s an extremely powerful period of time, especially as it moves towards its conclusion with the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) on 2 February. My own Nunc dimittis was intended as an anthem for that occasion, rather than for regular weekday Evensongs, and thankfully it’s only ever been performed as such.

Yesterday’s listening was a return to an old favourite: John Oswald. i’ve been interested in him since my early 20s, when i heard a work of his performed by the Kronos Quartet at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (Mach i believe it was called). His “plunderphonic” style is remarkable, and when i first heard Plexure it produced a similar reaction to Venetian Snares: shock, amusement, bewilderment and exhilaration. But today i was listening to something from his very different, electroacoustic style: his 2003 work Aparenthesi. It’s difficult to believe it’s by the same composer; a gorgeous, intense, patient and rapturous meditation, similar to some of The Hafler Trio‘s work. The slowly-shifting soundscape is surprisingly engaging, and i found myself very moved by it.

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