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Francis POTT (b.1957)
The Cloud of Unknowing (2006) [88:46]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Jeremy Filsell (organ)
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. February 2007, Tonbridge School, UK. DDD
Texts included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD105 [45:28 + 43:18]

This substantial piece was composed by British composer Francis Pott. It was written to celebrate 25 years of the Vasari Singers under the leadership of Jeremy Backhouse, with funding from the PRS Foundation. Pott is respected as something of a leader in the contemporary choral music scene, and has achieved widespread critical acclaim.

Taking its name from a fourteenth century anonymous text, this new oratorio sends out a strong humanitarian message, a plea for peace in a world of conflict and suffering. Central to the work, Pott’s setting of Psalm 23 was the first of the twenty nine tracks that make up The Cloud of Unknowing. It is a response to the Beslan tragedy in September 2004. The setting is for women’s voices only, echoing contemporary TV footage of mothers in distress. 

The work opens with an organ prologue which is dark, desolate and searching, reminiscent perhaps of Messiaen’s work. The vocal entry continues the sombre mood, building towards the first of many tenor solos (track 4), all of which are sung skilfully and with musical sensitivity by James Gilchrist. The role of the soloist is to take on the voice of the human conscience, struggling against war. This is intense music, indelibly connected with political issues, and their effect on humanity. It also represents a crisis of faith within the composer, unsurprising in a world where so much suffering occurs. 

The name of the Vasari Singers has been connected with excellence in performance, and this recording is no different. The singing is outstanding throughout, and the organ playing has a symphonic feel, which lends grandeur and a sense of enormity to the proceedings. 

Pott’s compositional style is an extension of British twentieth century tradition, having resonances in style with Walton and Elgar. One cannot help but think of Britten’s War Requiem as a precursor to this work. Using texts from a variety of sources, including Blake, the Psalms and war poets, the message is clear and moving, at the very least stirring the listener into thought and perhaps even as far as action. 

This is intoxicating and dramatic music with an inner strength and determined convictions. The performance here is stunning, and the production values match. This recording featured in MusicWeb's Recordings of the Year for 2007, and deservedly so.

Carla Rees

see also Review by John Quinn



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