Howard Goodall has built up quite a reputation in recent years
not least in writing theme music for several British television
series. Not only is he a composer but also he is an effective
and enthusiastic broadcaster about music, to whom television seems
to come as a natural milieu.
His new Requiem
has a slightly unusual genesis for a choral work. It was commissioned
by London Musici to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. The
commission was for a choral-orchestral-dance piece for that
orchestra, for the Christ Church Cathedral Choir and for the
Rambert Dance Company. The Rambert is presenting the work on
tour in several UK venues at the time of writing this review
In his booklet note
the composer writes that in writing the work he has taken “what
you might call a Brahmsian route.” By this he means that he
has followed the example of Brahms in Ein deutsches Requiem,
attempting to “provide solace to the grieving who live on, rather
than dire warnings of damnation, or pleas for the departed as
they linger in purgatory”. Goodall sets a mixed text in which
elements of the traditional Christian funeral rites, in Latin,
sit alongside various suitable poems as well as some verses
from the Book of Revelation.
I have no doubt
that Eternal Light will become very popular among performers
and audiences alike for it is tuneful and accessible. Whether
it will stand the test of time is another matter. I’ve just
finished taking part in a run of performances of John Rutter’s
Requiem, a piece in which I’ve sung several times before,
and I’m convinced more than ever that Rutter’s work will stand
that test for it combines memorable melodies, felicitous harmonies
and skilful vocal and orchestral writing. After listening to
Goodall’s piece several times I’m not convinced it’s successful
on all those fronts.
The vocal writing,
both for choir and soloists, is generally effective. Some of
the melodies are quite memorable – I think, particularly, of
the soprano solo, ‘Close thine eyes and rest secure’ in the
first movement; of the tune for Newman’s celebrated hymn ‘Lead
kindly light’, which is the fourth movement; and the fine baritone
solo ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’ (movement five). The
soprano solo ‘Drop, drop, slow tears’ is also noteworthy. But
sometimes Goodall’s melodic invention is less inspired. The
third movement, ‘Belief’ sets a poem by Ann Thorp. The words
look fine on the printed page. Unfortunately, Goodall provides
a repetitive melody, which invests the whole movement with maudlin
sentimentality. Tenor Alfie Boe does his best with it, but for
me this is pretty thin stuff.
Happily Boe, who
is truly excellent throughout, gets some better material elsewhere,
not least in the ‘Agnus Dei’ and, earlier, in his contribution
to the fifth movement, ‘In Flanders fields’.
A weakness of the
work, I think, lies in the accompaniment. The scoring is light,
consisting of a small string band (6, 4, 4, 4, 2 in this performance),
harp, piano, piano/organ, and keyboard (played here by the composer).
In several movements I’m afraid the accompaniment is just that
– there’s little independent contribution to the musical argument
by the players – and repeated listening drew me to the conclusion
that the more memorable music came in those movements where
not only is the melodic invention at its best but also the accompaniment
is most interesting; in my view the strongest movements are
numbers five, six, seven, nine and ten. I suppose the somewhat
restricted style of the accompaniment is deliberate but it did
seem to me to be a bit odd when an orchestra has commissioned
the piece. One wonders if the addition of, say, a few woodwinds
might have made the instrumental textures a bit more interesting,
although perhaps the forces were determined by the composition
of London Musici.
Though the music
is somewhat uneven the same can’t be said of the performance
itself for Stephen Darlington leads a committed and fine reading.
The choir sings very well indeed and even if the instrumental
contribution is too limited for my taste, the players do well.
There’s also a strong line-up of soloists. I’ve already mentioned
the excellence of Alfie Boe. Christopher Maltman is equally
distinguished, singing with focused, rich tone and real eloquence.
I’m not quite so persuaded by Natasha Marsh. I like very much
the warm, round sound that she makes but for me the problem
lies in her articulation of the words. In trying for expressiveness
she often sounds too emotive and that spoils an otherwise good
Whatever my reservations
about the quality of the music Goodall builds to a convincing
conclusion. The penultimate movement, ‘Agnus Dei’, for tenor
and chorus is gently impassioned. Just as convincing is the
last movement, ‘In Paradisum’, which involves the whole ensemble
and in which Goodall draws the work together by reprising music
from several of the preceding sections. There’s a moving climax
at the words “Recordare, Jesu pie”, crowned by the solo soprano,
before the tenor soloist leads a restatement of ‘Lead, kindly
light’. Then the work comes to a peaceful, rather pensive close.
Three short pieces
complete the disc. The setting of Psalm 23 has achieved celebrity
as the theme music for the BBC television comedy series The
Vicar of Dibley. Goodall has provided a new tune for Charles
Wesley’s celebrated hymn, ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’.
This new melody may not quite match Blaenwern, the great
Welsh tune to which the hymn is often sung, but I find it’s
one of those tunes that lodges firmly in the memory.
I’m sorry that I have
reservations about Eternal Light. It has some fine moments
and some that are genuinely moving. Perhaps my reservations will
be stilled when the choir to which I belong performs the piece
next year and I have the chance to learn it from the inside. As
I said earlier, I have no doubt it will achieve great popularity
and this recording will undoubtedly help in that process since
it’s hard to imagine it better done.
When my review of Eternal Light was published at the very start
of 2009 I made the following comment: "Perhaps my reservations
will be stilled when the choir to which I belong performs the
piece next year and I have the chance to learn it from the inside."
Well, I've just taken part in a couple of performances, preceded
by several weeks of rehearsals. During that time I've also listened
several more times to the CD. My largely favourable view of the
recorded performance hasn't changed but how do I feel now about
the work itself?
Some reservations remain. Above all, the accompaniment still
seems desperately plain, prosaic even, and I don't think it adds
to the musical argument at all. I still find the third movement
maudlin. I've also slightly modified my view of the choral writing,
portions of which I don't think now are actually all that well
written for voices: some of the writing in all parts lies uncomfortably
However, my overall view of the work as a piece of music has
become much more positive. It has a cumulative impact, I find,
especially from the fourth movement onwards. The sixth movement,
in which the poem 'In Flanders Fields' is combined with phrases
from the Dies Irae is powerfully effective. By contrast, the relative
simplicity of the 'Agnus Dei' movement is winning, as is the affecting
baritone solo in the fifth movement, and Goodall knits the threads
of the work together convincingly in the tenth and final movement.
Perhaps the most telling point to make to collectors is that
the piece quite obviously made an impression on the audiences
at the performances in which I took part; many people were genuinely
moved. Also, several members of the choir have commented to me
that they've come to have an increasing regard for it as they've
got to know it better. A good deal of comment has come my way
that indicates a genuine desire to hear or sing the work again.
Obviously the key to the work's success or otherwise will be
the extent to which choirs take it up. The general reaction to
the piece after the performances in which I took part suggests
that I can safely stand by my prediction that Eternal Light will
become very popular.