MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • Editor - Bill Kenny
    Assistant Webmaster -Stan Metzger
  • Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb



Cheltenham Music Festival 2010 (1) - Forty Parts and Counting: Music by Gabriel Jackson; John Taverner; György Ligeti: John Sheppard; Michael Zev Gordon; and Thomas Tallis, New London Chamber Choir/James Weeks, Cheltenham College Chapel 10.7.2010 (JQ)


Gabriel Jackson: Sanctum est verum lumen

John Taverner: Dum transisset I

György Ligeti: Lux Aeterna

John Sheppard: Libera nos

Michael Zev Gordon: Allele

Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium

On a humid afternoon in Cheltenham it was a relief to escape into the cool of the Victorian Gothic chapel of Cheltenham College. The visitors were the New London Chamber Choir, an ensemble founded by James Wood in 1981, which has acquired a significant reputation for the performance of contemporary music, including many pieces specially written for them. Since 2007 their Director has been James Weeks.

The underlying theme of their programme of a cappella music was that of works in forty parts. The concert ended with perhaps the most celebrated such work, Tallis’s superb motet, and opened with Gabriel Jackson’s homage to Spem in Alium, composed in 2005, five hundred years after the assumed birth date of the Tudor master. Michael Zev Gordon’s new piece, which the NLCC had premièred the previous night in Oxford, I believe, offered a most unusual new take on what I might call the “forty-part motet genre.” However, since James Weeks had clearly designed his programme as a sequence it is appropriate to comment on the performances in the order in which we heard them.

The Jackson piece made an arresting opening. The singers were arranged in a horseshoe formation on the altar steps, as they were to be for the other two forty-part pieces, with one singer allotted to each part. This arrangement enabled the eight separate choirs to be differentiated and though Jackson’s textures are often very rich I thought that James Weeks and his singers performed the work with exemplary clarity. This was the second time in a few months that I’ve heard the Jackson piece – and Spem in alium – in live performance. The previous time was another fine performance by the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra (review). However, on that occasion I heard the music in the very different, though also sympathetic, acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall. For the Birmingham performance I was seated at quite a distance from the singers. Here I was much closer and it was interesting to hear the music in this way. Jackson’s is a most impressive piece, full of rich, luminous textures, and he uses the voices most imaginatively. The NLCC gave a most assured performance in which the top sopranos made a strong impact.

I’ve often thought that pre-Classical music makes a particularly good foil for modern music and in constructing his programme James Weeks had opted to alternate the contemporary items with some choice examples of Tudor polyphony. Adopting a more conventional layout around the chapel altar, the NLCC unfolded the long lines of Taverner’s Dum transisset I steadily and impressively. The performance benefited from a strong bass foundation and the sopranos sustained the long treble lines very well indeed. The men delivered the plainchant sections fluently and in convincing unanimity. This, of course, was a performance on a much more substantial scale than one hears from small ensembles such as The Sixteen or The Tallis Scholars. The intimacy of such small choirs is especially satisfying in this music but the larger forces of the NLCC sacrificed nothing in terms of precision or balance but gave us a grander scale of performance.

The Ligeti piece achieved celebrity when it was used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have to say that it’s a piece that I can respect but do not enjoy. I can admire its ingenuity but it does absolutely nothing to stir my spirits. It must pose fearsome pitching problems for the singers, who often have very long sustained notes to sing against the most difficult intervals from colleagues around them. I’m simply not equipped to judge, not least because I don’t have perfect pitch, but it seemed that the NLCC confronted and overcame all the challenges that Ligeti sets them. This was the first time I’ve heard the piece ‘live’ and it made a greater impact than when I’ve heard it on CD or radio.

After this the measured, dignified piece by John Sheppard was like balm to the soul. I am full of admiration for way that James Weeks and his gifted singers can move, seemingly effortlessly, from the most complex modern music to Tudor polyphony and deliver both types of music with such assurance and sense of style.

The new piece by Michael Zev Gordon had a fascinating genesis and quite by chance I’d heard an item about it on that morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 – it’s worth hearing on the BBC I-player facility for the seven days following the broadcast. In brief, the BBC report explained that our DNA is made up from four separate chemical compounds. A scientist, Dr Andrew Morley, who also happens to be a singer, had the idea of assigning a musical note to each genetic compound. This idea has borne fruit in Gordon’s new piece where each of the forty singers effectively sings their own personal genetic code. (What I’m not clear about is whether other choirs who take up the piece will also sing the genetic code of the NLCC members.) Gordon has written a substantial piece, some twenty minutes long, to a text written for him by the poet Ruth Padel. As James Weeks commented in the Today feature the work is “an evocation of the extraordinary wonder that is the genome.”

I don’t pretend to understand the compositional process by which genetic codes have been translated into musical notation, still less how these codes have been woven into a complex, multi-layered piece of vocal music. However, what I can say, based on a single hearing, is that Michael Zev Gordon has produced a fascinating and compelling piece of choral music. Beginning with just a few voices, in an ambience of mystery, representing perhaps man’s uncertainty before the wonders of science, Gordon gradually builds up a rich, complex texture, exploiting the voices at his disposal most resourcefully and inventively. The singers are called upon to do more than sing the text: there are passages of humming or other forms of vocalisation in the various parts. But I was delighted to find that Gordon makes no outlandish demands on his performers: everything is very well, if very demandingly, written for the human voice.

I also noticed that, although the basic pulse of the music, as beaten by the conductor, is quite moderate, there’s a great deal of rhythmic vitality within the music. This is a score where there’s always a lot going on and the listener’s ear is constantly being stimulated by a new texture or a different rhythmic device. It’s intriguing music. Eventually, at the words “Tiniest freckle visible at dawn”, towards the end of the fourth of the five stanzas of Ruth Padel’s text, Gordon produces an extended passage of great complexity, where I think, to judge from James Weeks’ directions to the choir, four musical cells are sung at the conductor’s discretion before the music achieves a huge and sustained climax, which is most impressive. The end of the piece, though much quieter and simpler, is no less impressive. Here the choir sings Padel’s last line “for stranger may be god” in rich block chords. Happily, at the conclusion, Weeks was able to sustain the atmosphere for several seconds before breaking the spell and allowing warm applause. The composer, who was present, rightly received an appreciative acknowledgement from the audience. The appreciation was shared with the choir, which performed this virtuoso score with splendid assurance and evident attention to detail. Allele is an impressive new score and I’ll be keen to hear it again. This should be possible since the concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future transmission.

The great Tallis motet, Spem in alium, is not exactly the fons et origo of forty-part vocal works for, as is well known, the Italian composer, Striggio, beat him to it and it’s believed that Tallis was commissioned to write his piece by the Duke of Norfolk as a riposte to Striggio. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Tallis produced the finer piece – though Striggio’s offering is not without merit – and it remains, justly, a peak of Tudor polyphony. Here it made a sumptuous conclusion to the NLCC’s programme. James Weeks laid out Tallis’s magnificent structure with clarity and purpose. Though the music never sounded rushed, he adopted a tempo that kept the piece moving forward. As the music expanded you had the impression that voices were coming at you from all sides, even though the singers were all in front of the audience. It’s that sort of aural illusion that a performance of Spem in alium should achieve. By the end of the piece the building seemed to be vibrating with sound. It was a most impressive way to conclude a fine concert.

As I said earlier, the concert has been recorded by the BBC for future transmission. Look out for it in the schedule: it’s well worth hearing.

John Quinn

Back to Top                                                 Cumulative Index Page