My first encounter with the music of Will Todd
was represented by The Burning Road, his work based around
the events of the Jarrow March. This certainly wasn't overshadowed
by its coupling: Britten’s The Company of Heaven. I am
happy to report that the Durham born composer surpasses even that
achievement on this wonderful musical celebration of the life
of Saint Cuthbert. This is another subject of vital importance
to the culture of the North-East and beyond! The disc, released
by Newcastle-based Mawson and Wareham, quite logically forms part
of the Northumbria Anthology.
Like Will Todd, Saint Cuthbert is someone I grew
up being very much aware of. This came about via numerous visits
to Northumberland. I have vivid memories of boat trips to the
Farne Islands where the saint lived in a humble cell, surrounded
by his beloved "cuddy ducks" (eiders) and of taking the causeway
at low water to Holy Island (Lindisfarne). A more recent personal
inspiration has been the writings of David Adam (Vicar of Holy
Island), which spring from Northumbria's Celtic Christian heritage.
Although this disc helped to revive many happy childhood memories
it did much more besides, including confirming my previous impression
that Will Todd is one of our most talented working composers.
My two favourite works of this ilk are Dyson's
Canterbury Pilgrims and John Surman's "jazz" oratorio Proverbs
and Songs. This Todd piece is well on the way to joining them,
while confirming the composer’s ability to draw on the British
cultural heritage and breathe new life into it. Much the same
can be said of Dave Heath, Peter Maxwell Davies and Howard Skempton.
Howard Ferguson's Dream of the Rood is another likely antecedent.
Saint Cuthbert begins with The Call.
This describes Cuthbert's (at the time) reluctant move from his
Inner Farne sanctuary to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. A powerfully
solemn, almost medieval theme leads to a dialogue between the
Angel and Man with interjections from the mighty choral forces.
Renowned soprano Patricia Rozario, perhaps best known for her
Tavener recordings, takes the part of the Angel while the bass
Graeme Danby represents Man. The Call ends with a passage
that recalls both the power of Walton and the integrity of Finzi.
The Storm is sung mainly by Cuthbert himself (tenor, John
Hudson) and recalls "an event at the mouth of the Tyne…an insight
into the cruelties and hardship of a missionary life". Again this
is backed by powerful but lyrical music. Man Unkind is
more subdued, with female voices (Angel and Chorus) dominating
a profound and moving meditation on the theme of forgiveness.
Plague and Healing is far more dramatic and reminds me,
both in theme and execution, of parts of Lambert's Last Will
and Testament (another of my choral/orchestral favourites).
Hushed gloom is interspersed with frantic, percussive sections,
and there are even occasional echoes in the vocal intonations,
of Ferguson's (superior and pre-Britten) Lyke Wake Dirge.
The first part ends with Enthronement, a lovely account
of how the young Cuthbert had seen a vision of Saint Aidan on
the night the latter died. We also hear Cuthbert's meditation
on how he is now to take his place as Bishop of Lindisfarne ("God
strengthen me now to stand in his place, God grant me now his
sanctity and grace").
Part two begins with Lindisfarne itself,
which is a choral tour de force. It describes Cuthbert's
death and then return for burial on Inner Farne. It is perhaps
the most beautiful and heartfelt section of the whole work even
if there is a certain harshness to the beauty. Vikings,
which follows, begins with the familiar Agnus Dei ("O Lamb
of God, you take away the sins of the world"). This is relatively
beatific employing chorus and strings but it is a short-lived
peace. We are soon unsettled by the tumultuous approach and arrival
of the eponymous anti-heroes in their "ships from the north".
You might even be forgiven for thinking you were listening to
Carl Orff at times here. The Latin text - A furore Nordmannorum
libera nos Domine - might have something to do with it! The
intended effect of panic and chaos is clearly achieved. The
Tide is sung entirely by the Angel alone and is a poetic summary
of the saint's life. This emphasises the essential contribution
Todd's regular librettist, Ben Dunwell, makes to this project
by employing an accessible but lyrical and highly literate style.
Journeying describes the eventual flight of the Lindisfarne
monks in the face of the Viking invaders and their century long
wanderings with Cuthbert's shrine. It understandably contains
some grave sonorities and is often reminiscent of plainchant.
Soon however, it segues into the closing Prayer in which
Cuthbert reappears "in dreams to one of the monks" after his death
at Lindisfarne as the monks pass Durham to name it is as
their true home. This is a wonderful and positive finale and one
of the parts of the work that made me think of Dyson who is a
true master of the British choral tradition. The incorporation
of the folk dances is superb and entirely appropriate. The closing
"Hosanna" is one of the most uplifting moments in music.
This is excellent. If you like, say, Gerontius
or Belshazzar, and are considering a new version of either
then why not buy this instead … or at least as well! I suppose
that personal interest will depend on how relevant you find the
subject matter but to anyone who cares about Britain's Celtic
cultural heritage this is a major new addition. Totally impressive
music, performance, recording, packaging, everything!