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The People’s Mass:
Malcolm LINDSAY (b. 1959) Kyrie and Gloria - Days of Thunder
Christine MCCOMBE (b. 1967) The Scottish Stone
Tommy FOWLER (b. 1948) Credo and God is
John GORMLEY (b. 1975) In praise of Saints and Sanctus
Anthea HADDOW (b. 1969) Benedictus, La Muerta and Black over Red Epilogue
Rebecca ROWE (b. 1970) Prayer and Agnus dei
The Dunedin Consort/Ben Parry
Recorded at Crichton Collegiate Church, Pathhead, Scotland, April 2003
DELPHIAN DCD 34018 [64:33]


This is, I believe, the fifth disc by the Scottish-based Dunedin Ensemble for the Scottish company Delphian. They comprise six solo singers and a choir of a further six. This CD marks an unusual conception. It is all explained in the slightly brief but clear booklet essay by Ben Parry who is the co-founder of the Dunedin Consort.

The idea was to ask six Scottish-born or -based composers, three men, three women, each to make a setting of one of the movements of the Mass. The pieces were to be for unaccompanied voices partially or probably in eight parts each based on a chant suitable for the feast of All Saints (November 1st). Things started to gel as early as Christmas 1999. As the project developed accretions became necessary. Each composer was asked to make a setting of a poem of their choice which related in some way to their particular section. This had to feature one of the six singers, giving each a solo number accompanied by the harp.

All Saints Day however is also the Eve of All Souls Day when we remember the dead and this falls at such a dark time of the year (I write this in mid-November) when we also remember the dead of the Wars. It should not be surprising for the listener to discover that all of these many layers are a part of this hour of spiritual reflection and yet of uplift.

The pattern of the CD is first the chant, then the Mass setting followed by a song by one of the composers, then the next chant etc. The order is slightly varied in the middle with the Mass setting and song changing around. The notes point out that the idea is not simply to present the work as a concert item, which anyway has been done several times, but to perform the six mass movements as part of the liturgy. At the time of writing Ben Parry, a composer himself, says that this has not been achieved.

On one quiet occasion I programmed the CD just to play these Mass sections. I was glad that I inserted some plainchant (between the Gloria and Creed, the Creed and the Sanctus and between the Benedictus and Agnus) just to add a little variety from the rich harmonic textures. I was intrigued to discover how homogeneous it all sounds and, I would imagine, all by accident, even as far as the similarly rising phrases found in the Kyrie and the concluding Agnus. Having said Although the music is moving and ideal for liturgical performance Tommy Fowler is not especially successful in his somewhat frantic Creed setting although as a virtuoso concert piece it has its place. Anthea Haddow’s Benedictus is almost, at times, Victorian in her gluey harmonies. Most successful to my ears is the clear form and searching harmony of Malcolm Lindsay’s Kyrie, which ending, as it does, somewhat in mid-air, can either lead on very successfully into Christine McCombe’s exciting Gloria or, magically, into the falling harp sounds of his setting of ‘Days of Thunder’. The setting of the Agnus Dei by Rebecca Rowe is moving and passionate. Its final discord, left unresolved liturgically, would make quite an impression. However it is followed here, as an Epilogue, by Haddow’s ‘Black over Red’ from a setting of Anna Akhmatova written for the Latvian Radio Choir. This is dedicated to the victims of Stalin and concludes the CD on the subject of remembrance of the dead.

As another alternative one could remove the mass and just perform the six songs, and as each has a different singer with harp the variety is quite considerable.

The harp of course is a diatonic instrument and any chromatic notes have to be carefully thought out by the composer. This dictates that these songs are likewise almost entirely diatonic, in fact often modal. Nevertheless it is intriguing to see how each composer’s originality can come through. In my view some could have been a little more adventurous harmonically. They tend to resort to typical harp arpeggiated figurations which I find disappointing. Malcolm Lindsay opens the bowling straight after his Kyrie with a very beautiful ‘Days of Thunder’. This setting is the one that I have most played, being the most penetrating in its text setting and with a strong individuality.

‘La Muerta’, a setting of Pablo Neruda, never rises above the mundane which is surprising for such a disturbing poem beginning ‘If suddenly you do not exist,/ If suddenly you no longer live’. There is very little in the music that is questioning or stretches the listener. Fortunately Anthea Haddow’s final contribution at the end of the CD ‘Black over Red’ is a fine and effective work which brings the whole enterprise to a suitable end.

The setting by Christine MacCrumb of George Mackay Brown’s beautiful poem ‘The Scottish Stone’ is most original in its writing for the harp and very sensitive to the text. It is also a superb text for music, the whole endeavour reminiscent of a fresh water Highland stream in winter sunshine.

‘In Praise of Saints’, to a text by the composer himself, John Gormley, is a magical piece on the edge of Celtic twilight. The beauty of the harp writing takes precedence over the lyrical memorability of the vocal line, which is, not inappropriately, more akin to plainchant. The same comments could equally apply to ‘Prayer’ by Rebecca Rowe who has taken an anonymous text from a Chilean prayer book.

I cannot speak too highly of the performers especially the soloists Susan Hamilton and Libby Crabtree sopranos, Kate Hamilton, alto, Nicholas Mulroy tenor, Matthew Brook baritone and Noel Mann, bass. This is at times very challenging music which they bring off, not just competently, but with a strong passion and understanding. This is ideally complemented by the beautiful harp playing of Helen Thomson who I only wish had been recorded a little more prominently.

It is a strong and very forward recording with a good sense of the building and space around it.

Full texts and biographies on the soloists and harpist are given.

Gary Higginson

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