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Will TODD (b. 1970)
Saint Cuthbert (Oratorio) (1995) - words by Ben Dunwell

The Call; The Storm; Man Unkind; Plague and Healing; Enthronement; Lindisfarne; Vikings; The Tide; Journeying; Prayer
Patricia Rozario, Angel (soprano)
John Hudson, Cuthbert (tenor)
Graeme Danby, Man (bass)
Northern Sinfonia Chorus
Durham Singers
Hallé Choir
Hallé Orchestra/Christopher Austin
Recorded in Studio 7, BBC Manchester, June 2nd - 4th 2001
The Northumbria Anthology MWM CDSP56 [79.43]

It is good again to encounter the team of composer Will Todd and his librettist Ben Dunwell, both only still in their early thirties. Unfortunately I missed Todd’s opera The Blackened Man when it was recently given a studio performance at Covent Garden, but here is another large-scale choral piece to follow his earlier successes of Midwinter and The Burning Road, which were so striking on CD. Todd and Dunwell found their artistic feet at Bristol University with the opera Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a suite from which I reviewed in News at the time, (72 Dec 1996 p 294) and which also appears on the Midwinter CD. This dramatic gift is reflected in Todd’s choral works, which have a strong narrative flow. This is very much tonal music and it communicates through striking invention, a sure feeling for pacing large forces, a film composer’s command of the orchestra, and a quite personal feeling for drama and wide-spanning evocation of a big subject.

Here Todd is fortunate to have top-line performers - remarkably strong forces, a large choral body, fine committed soloists and the Hallé Orchestra - at his disposal. The performance is grandly characterised by conductor Christopher Austin – long a champion of Todd from Bristol days. It fully reflects the excitement of the occasion for which it was written in 1995, for the millennium anniversary of the Diocese of Durham, in Durham Cathedral, though now revised. The recording which was made in the BBC’s Studio 7 at Manchester in June 2001 was produced by Andrew Keener.

The music fall into ten movements underlining the narrative thread and with dramatic descriptive moments, which are more or less self-explanatory – ‘The Call’, ‘The Storm’, ‘Man Unkind’, ‘Plague and Healing’, ‘Enthronement’, ‘Lindisfarne’, ‘Vikings’, ‘The Tide’, ‘Journeying’, ‘Prayer’. The welling triplets of the opening are immediately gripping as the high-lying soprano – Patricia Rosario in her element here - sings of Cuthbert being called by his bishops to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. If, in the punctuating and concluding "Glory be to God", we find more than a hint of Walton’s choral writing, it is non the worse for that when so memorably done. Having been drawn into the story, Cuthbert’s narration – a gripping tenor solo, strongly sung by John Hudson – puts Todd’s personal stamp on the music.

As lovers of Todd’s previous CDs will know, every so often we are suddenly brought up short by a stunning set piece which will have you hitting the repeat button on your CD player. Here it is surely the wonderful calm at the opening of the sixth movement in which the chorus, now in 16 parts, evokes the pull of the tides, building to a thrilling climax. Ben Dunwell’s libretto gives the composer many opportunities at such moments: "Lindisfarne, island of tides, Island of prayer. Rough rocks, cliffs and scar, Washed by the wind, and by the tide." The spacious evocation of Cuthbert’s death which follows is clearly the work of a composer used to writing for the stage, and is strongly presented by John Hudson, effective not least because every word is intelligible.

Todd sets up his uplifting finale with two solos. First in ‘The Tide’ a wide-spanning soprano solo, predominantly slow, the angel meditates on life and death. This is followed by the much shorter ‘Journeying’, recalling how the monks fled Lindisfarne in the face of Viking raids and wandered Northumberland for over a century. The last movement, running just on 12 minutes, recounts how when the monks passed near Durham, Cuthbert appeared in dreams naming Durham as their true home. Here Todd completes the story and his forces join together to sing Hosannas, which in his excellent notes Michael White describes as ‘Ecstatic . . . Saint Cuthbert is a feel-good oratorio, designed to send it audience out into the world uplifted and encouraged’. I could not agree more; it must have been a wonderful experience in the resonant acoustic of Durham Cathedral.

Finding this CD in the shops may be a problem because it is issued under a non-trade label. Unless you are likely to visit Lindisfarne or Durham, order forms can be found from Will Todd’s website and this is probably the easiest way to get it, by post. I predict you will be hooked! But this was written eight years ago – it would be good to hear some of the composer’s more recent music, such as And My Friend, written for the first anniversary of September 11th or his setting of the Venerable Bede’s Christus est Stella.

Lewis Foreman

see also review by Neil Horner



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