Thank goodness for NMC. They are in the process of
successfully rescuing from the vaults of now defunct companies,
like Unicorn-Kanchana and Collins Classics, recordings of outstanding merit
and importance, Many of these date from the early 1990s. They
are of music little performed but important to an understanding
of the composer’s development and of the music of its period.
I first heard Saxton's Violin Concerto one
wet afternoon in 1995 when I entered a CD shop in Exeter. There
it echoed around, mostly unnoticed - I snapped it up. On that
original disc is 'In the Beginning' and 'I will awake the dawn'.
It is particularly pleasing that NMC have added 'Music to Celebrate
the Resurrection'. This was a BBC commission from 1988 for an
Easter television programme. The second disc is of Saxton's two
act opera ‘Caritas’ with libretto by no less than Arnold Wesker
and based on his play. This opera, mounted by Opera North, was
recorded live over a period of the three nights in Huddersfield
in 1991. These included the premiere night. All of the notes and
the full text are exactly as given in the original Collins CD.
They are niftily reproduced. A more middle aged and thoughtful
composer adorns the new cover as opposed to the boyish one on
Well, what do these pieces have in common?
I see in each a Christian sympathy and vision. In Paul Griffiths'
book of interviews entitled 'British Composers of the 1980s’ (Faber
and Faber, 1985) Saxton comments: "I am very aware that my
family are eastern-European Jews and part of my family was Lithuanian'.
However he was brought up in England so perhaps his religious
sympathies have re-orientated.
Each time I've heard 'Music to celebrate
the Resurrection' I have been moved by this powerful ten minute
sketch which begins with the Crucifixion and ends in E major.
The trajectory is comparable with that of Jonathan Fulford's
film with "Graham Sutherland's tapestry of the Risen Christ
in Majesty, with resurrected Man standing between stigmatised
feet". It is a powerful and life-enhancing musical statement.
What is remarkable about 'Caritas' is that
Saxton, through Wesker's text, manages
to sympathize with the church at all. Here, an affianced sixteen
year old girl, against the will of her family, desires to become
an anchoress in the church of Pulham
St.Mary in Norfolk. The bishop, at one
point, says that "he doesn't approve of them' meaning anchoresses.
After three years, just at the time of the outbreak of the peasants
revolt, Christine, the anchoress, is losing her will to live and
"wants out". The family and her fiancée plead with the
bishop but he maintains that he "has no power to sanction
breaking of a vow". The girl looses her sanity and the results
of her 'selfishness' are tragic for all associated with her.
What with the chanting male voices and the
chamber orchestra's bi-tonal quartal
harmonies, you could be forgiven for thinking, at the start of
the work, that you had walked in by accident on a Britten Church
Parable. Saxton does say, in the aforementioned interview, that
he once had a lesson with Britten and that he "got under
the spell of Britten" as a boy. Pleasingly however this 'monkish
scene' is simply a starting point. At no point is it possible
to strongly feel the older composer's presence. But what is the
composer's presence - his voice. The problem I have with Saxton
is that I mostly like and admire his music but I cannot find a
distinctive voice. This is certainly true of the Violin Concerto.
Despite the advocacy of the superb Tasmin
Little and BBC Symphony orchestra at the end of the 24 minute,
three movement work I always feel that it 'signifies nothing'.
I have known the work as I have all of these pieces for a number
of years so I am not writing this review after one or two hearings.
The choral work represents a similar problem
to me. I listened again to the roughly contemporaneous Chamber
Symphony 'The Circle of Light' written in 1986 but recorded by
EMI in 1990 (nla). This is similarly
full of coruscating and swirling textures. I am left with the
feeling (which I don't get from 'Caritas' or 'Music to Celebrate
the Resurrection') of, as Elizabeth Lutyens might have said, "just
notes my dear boy, just notes". Lutyens, Saxton's one-time
mentor, would probably have used stronger words more or less to
the same effect!
The BBC Singers however are unbeatable in
'I will awake the dawn'. This is a setting of three psalms, which
lead us from Darkness into Light - Lent to Easter if you like.
'In the Beginning' plots the same course but this time for orchestra
alone. Yes we are back where we started. 'Music for the Resurrection'
begins, to quote the composer, "at the crucifixion ... and
later becomes a wide dance of joy" on the resurrection morning.
The title 'In the Beginning' quotes the opening of the book of
Genesis shared by the Jewish bible as well as the Christian. The
composer says that the piece "might suggest the idea of growth
and re-birth" also a Resurrection concept. The Psalms in
'I will awake the dawn' ending with 'Hallelujah' are Jewish songs,
yes, but recited and sung everyday in Christian churches. 'Caritas'
is the exception in that there is no resurrection life and light;
only the darkness of the awful walls which surround Christine
Saxton is much more direct and natural,
more powerful and passionate, when he has a strong and spiritual
aim in a work.
The performances are faultless. Of course
I have never heard them done by anyone else but I cannot imagine
how things might be improved. The recordings are excellent and
the notes by the composer are clear; useful if possibly a little