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Howard GOODALL (b. 1958)
Eternal Light - A Requiem (2008)* [44:19]
Love divine (2000) [4:49]
The Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 23) (1994) [2:44]
Spared (2008) [4:39]
*Natasha Marsh (soprano); *Alfie Boe (tenor); *Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
London Musici/Stephen Darlington
rec. 28-30 April, 13 May, 12 June 2008, St Michael and All Angels Church, Summertown, Oxford DDD
Latin Texts and English translation included
EMI CLASSICS 2150472 [56:47]
Experience Classicsonline


Howard Goodall has built up quite a reputation in recent years not least in writing theme music for several British television series. Not only is he a composer but also he is an effective and enthusiastic broadcaster about music, to whom television seems to come as a natural milieu.

His new Requiem has a slightly unusual genesis for a choral work. It was commissioned by London Musici to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. The commission was for a choral-orchestral-dance piece for that orchestra, for the Christ Church Cathedral Choir and for the Rambert Dance Company. The Rambert is presenting the work on tour in several UK venues at the time of writing this review (November 2008).

In his booklet note the composer writes that in writing the work he has taken “what you might call a Brahmsian route.” By this he means that he has followed the example of Brahms in Ein deutsches Requiem, attempting to “provide solace to the grieving who live on, rather than dire warnings of damnation, or pleas for the departed as they linger in purgatory”. Goodall sets a mixed text in which elements of the traditional Christian funeral rites, in Latin, sit alongside various suitable poems as well as some verses from the Book of Revelation.

I have no doubt that Eternal Light will become very popular among performers and audiences alike for it is tuneful and accessible. Whether it will stand the test of time is another matter. I’ve just finished taking part in a run of performances of John Rutter’s Requiem, a piece in which I’ve sung several times before, and I’m convinced more than ever that Rutter’s work will stand that test for it combines memorable melodies, felicitous harmonies and skilful vocal and orchestral writing. After listening to Goodall’s piece several times I’m not convinced it’s successful on all those fronts.

The vocal writing, both for choir and soloists, is generally effective. Some of the melodies are quite memorable – I think, particularly, of the soprano solo, ‘Close thine eyes and rest secure’ in the first movement; of the tune for Newman’s celebrated hymn ‘Lead kindly light’, which is the fourth movement; and the fine baritone solo ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’ (movement five). The soprano solo ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ is also noteworthy. But sometimes Goodall’s melodic invention is less inspired. The third movement, ‘Belief’ sets a poem by Ann Thorp. The words look fine on the printed page. Unfortunately, Goodall provides a repetitive melody, which invests the whole movement with maudlin sentimentality. Tenor Alfie Boe does his best with it, but for me this is pretty thin stuff.

Happily Boe, who is truly excellent throughout, gets some better material elsewhere, not least in the ‘Agnus Dei’ and, earlier, in his contribution to the fifth movement, ‘In Flanders fields’.

A weakness of the work, I think, lies in the accompaniment. The scoring is light, consisting of a small string band (6, 4, 4, 4, 2 in this performance), harp, piano, piano/organ, and keyboard (played here by the composer). In several movements I’m afraid the accompaniment is just that – there’s little independent contribution to the musical argument by the players – and repeated listening drew me to the conclusion that the more memorable music came in those movements where not only is the melodic invention at its best but also the accompaniment is most interesting; in my view the strongest movements are numbers five, six, seven, nine and ten. I suppose the somewhat restricted style of the accompaniment is deliberate but it did seem to me to be a bit odd when an orchestra has commissioned the piece. One wonders if the addition of, say, a few woodwinds might have made the instrumental textures a bit more interesting, although perhaps the forces were determined by the composition of London Musici.

Though the music is somewhat uneven the same can’t be said of the performance itself for Stephen Darlington leads a committed and fine reading. The choir sings very well indeed and even if the instrumental contribution is too limited for my taste, the players do well. There’s also a strong line-up of soloists. I’ve already mentioned the excellence of Alfie Boe. Christopher Maltman is equally distinguished, singing with focused, rich tone and real eloquence. I’m not quite so persuaded by Natasha Marsh. I like very much the warm, round sound that she makes but for me the problem lies in her articulation of the words. In trying for expressiveness she often sounds too emotive and that spoils an otherwise good performance.

Whatever my reservations about the quality of the music Goodall builds to a convincing conclusion. The penultimate movement, ‘Agnus Dei’, for tenor and chorus is gently impassioned. Just as convincing is the last movement, ‘In Paradisum’, which involves the whole ensemble and in which Goodall draws the work together by reprising music from several of the preceding sections. There’s a moving climax at the words “Recordare, Jesu pie”, crowned by the solo soprano, before the tenor soloist leads a restatement of ‘Lead, kindly light’. Then the work comes to a peaceful, rather pensive close.

Three short pieces complete the disc. The setting of Psalm 23 has achieved celebrity as the theme music for the BBC television comedy series The Vicar of Dibley. Goodall has provided a new tune for Charles Wesley’s celebrated hymn, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’. This new melody may not quite match Blaenwern, the great Welsh tune to which the hymn is often sung, but I find it’s one of those tunes that lodges firmly in the memory.

I’m sorry that I have reservations about Eternal Light. It has some fine moments and some that are genuinely moving. Perhaps my reservations will be stilled when the choir to which I belong performs the piece next year and I have the chance to learn it from the inside. As I said earlier, I have no doubt it will achieve great popularity and this recording will undoubtedly help in that process since it’s hard to imagine it better done.

John Quinn


Postscript

When my review of Eternal Light was published at the very start of 2009 I made the following comment: "Perhaps my reservations will be stilled when the choir to which I belong performs the piece next year and I have the chance to learn it from the inside." Well, I've just taken part in a couple of performances, preceded by several weeks of rehearsals. During that time I've also listened several more times to the CD. My largely favourable view of the recorded performance hasn't changed but how do I feel now about the work itself?

Some reservations remain. Above all, the accompaniment still seems desperately plain, prosaic even, and I don't think it adds to the musical argument at all. I still find the third movement maudlin. I've also slightly modified my view of the choral writing, portions of which I don't think now are actually all that well written for voices: some of the writing in all parts lies uncomfortably low.

However, my overall view of the work as a piece of music has become much more positive. It has a cumulative impact, I find, especially from the fourth movement onwards. The sixth movement, in which the poem 'In Flanders Fields' is combined with phrases from the Dies Irae is powerfully effective. By contrast, the relative simplicity of the 'Agnus Dei' movement is winning, as is the affecting baritone solo in the fifth movement, and Goodall knits the threads of the work together convincingly in the tenth and final movement.

Perhaps the most telling point to make to collectors is that the piece quite obviously made an impression on the audiences at the performances in which I took part; many people were genuinely moved. Also, several members of the choir have commented to me that they've come to have an increasing regard for it as they've got to know it better. A good deal of comment has come my way that indicates a genuine desire to hear or sing the work again.

Obviously the key to the work's success or otherwise will be the extent to which choirs take it up. The general reaction to the piece after the performances in which I took part suggests that I can safely stand by my prediction that Eternal Light will become very popular.

John Quinn
December 2009



 


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