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
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
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.
also Review by Rob Barnett