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Will TODD (b. 1970)
Mass in Blue (jazz mass) Op.28 (2003)* [37:19]
(1. Kyrie [6.39]; 2. Gloria [3.50]; 3. Credo [8.32]; 4. Sanctus [5.10]; 5. Benedictus [4.16]; 6. Agnus Dei [8.52])
7. Christus est stella (2000) [3.42]
8. The Christ-Child (1997) [3.53]
9. Ave verum corpus (2001) [3.33]
10. None other Lamb (1998) [2.12]
11. The Rose (1998) [4.42]
12. Lead me Lord (soprano solo: Fiona McWilliams) (1997) [3.14]
13. Lighting the way (2000) [3.10]
14. Every stone shall cry [2.27]
*Bethany Halliday (soprano)
Will Todd (piano)
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
rec. 25 & 26 February 2006. DDD
Texts & translations included
SIGNUM SIGCD083 [64.19]

Experience Classicsonline

Some collectors may be familiar with the music of Will Todd through his oratorio Saint Cuthbert (1995), a piece which I’ve not heard (see review). The main work recorded here, Mass in Blue, is a more recent composition. It’s a setting of the Ordinary of the Mass for solo soprano and mixed choir, accompanied by a small jazz ensemble. The ensemble consists of three woodwind/saxophone players, two trumpets, three trombones and timpani plus an independent trio of piano, double bass and drums. The composer himself plays the crucial piano part and does so to excellent effect.

One of the most striking features of the score is the part for solo soprano. The role sounds to be very demanding, requiring a singer with a huge vocal range. Bethany Halliday, who is the composer’s wife, I believe, is a singer whose biography indicates that she is equally at home in jazz, opera or oratorio. On a number of occasions she is required to vocalise freely and up in the stratosphere and Miss Halliday sounds completely at home in these passages. However, repeated listening has made me question whether the very nature of this role may inhibit performances of Mass in Blue. I wonder how many “classical” singers would be able to do justice to the idiom yet a singer schooled only in jazz might find other aspects of the role too daunting. I haven’t seen a score so I don’t know how much improvisation, if any, there is in the solo role.

The choir is, in one sense, used more conventionally. However, the Vasari Singers are most definitely required to “loosen up” to sing the work and this they do as to the manner born. The jazz trio plays a crucial part throughout the score and the remaining instruments are added to the mix a little less frequently but always to good effect – there are some really effective moments when the low brass “growl”.

The Kyrie, which is introduced by a most effective cadenza-like passage for the trio, is founded on a melody that sounds like a spiritual. It begins quietly in the choir and as more voices are added the intensity grows.  Eventually the solo soprano tops things off with an extended passage of vocalising over the rest of the performers, often at the top of her range. Then comes the Gloria, in which the soloist is not involved. This fairly brief, fast movement is lively and pulsating. The Vasari Singers deliver the irregular rhythms with great punch. The brass instruments are prominent in the accompaniment, adding to the excitement.

In the Credo I was impressed by the very soulful “et incarnatus est”, where the soprano is backed by the piano, and then by the hushed “Crucifixus”. This latter section is full of suspense, after which the instrumental ensemble generates real tension (from 4:20) in the passage that leads to “et Resurrexit.” Here the music goes off like an express train and the last few minutes are exhilarating though, for my taste the plaintive vocalising by the soloist becomes rather too much of a good thing.

The Sanctus is an outstanding movement. The tranquil chorus part is enhanced superbly by the woodwind players in the background. Chief among these is the soprano saxophone, which imparts a real “late night blues” feeling as it gently and expressively keens behind the singers. The Benedictus is catchy, funky even, with some very effective growling from the low brass.

The Agnus Dei is the longest movement. It starts with an extended ballad-like meditation for soprano and piano. This passage is highly suggestive of a darkened cellar jazz club. The choir join in after a couple of minutes and Todd builds the movement to a big climax. The music then winds down plaintively and most effectively to a final, very beautiful  “Dona nobis pacem” (at 6:15). How I wish the piece ended there. However, Todd opts to reprise music from Credo at this point and the music builds to a Big Finish. Opinions may be divided about this. The author of the booklet note enthuses that this device “leaves the listener not in quiet contemplation but jerked forward into praise and belief.” Well maybe. I’m afraid I find this contrary to the spirit and traditions of the Mass. I also find it aesthetically unsatisfying and a miscalculation that spoils things for me. I can’t help feeling that the work would have been far more effective had Todd ended it with the very eloquent music he’s written for the Agnus Dei proper.

So I’m left with mixed feelings. Parts of Mass in Blue are undeniably exciting and effective and the Sanctus is a particular success. But the ending of the Agnus Dei jars and I also feel that the soprano solo role is somewhat overcooked at times. In short, I’m less than convinced. The performance itself is highly committed and, as I’ve indicated already, the Vasari Singers adapt to the jazz idiom with relish.

The disc also includes a number of shorter choral pieces, some unaccompanied, others with the composer at the piano. Most of the pieces are pleasing though I did not warm to Every stone shall cry. Todd’s setting of this text is jazzy and bouncy whereas the words seem to me to be essentially reflective in nature. Each to their own, I suppose but I much prefer the more thoughtful response to the same text by Bob Chilcott on a disc I reviewed a little while ago. I was much more taken with Christus est stella, a fine and eloquent unaccompanied setting of words by St. Bede. Lead me Lord also makes a very strong impression. It’s a deceptively simple miniature that I found very touching – indeed, I repeated it straightaway the first time I heard it. It features a really lovely soprano solo, which is sung with a beautifully pure tone by Fiona McWilliams.

This disc is quite a departure from the Vasari Singer’s usual repertoire and there can be no doubt that Jeremy Backhouse and his choir proselytise most effectively on Will Todd’s behalf. I find the music itself variable but that’s a subjective reaction which other listeners may not share. Even so I’d say Mass in Blue is well worth investigating and Will Todd’s music receives the strongest possible advocacy on this CD.

John Quinn

see also Review by Rob Barnett





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