James Whitbourn has a growing reputation as a composer, conductor
and producer of broadcasts. An earlier disc devoted to his choral
music was warmly
received by Grace Lace, though I have not heard it. On the
evidence of this new disc I am keen to remedy that omission.
The most substantial offering here is Luminosity, a work
in seven movements, conceived for choir and dancers. In a staged
performance there is also the opportunity to use lighting further
to stimulate the imagination and response of the audience though
here we must rely solely on the auditory aspect of the work.
The scoring is novel. The accompaniment features a solo viola
obbligato, played here most skilfully and persuasively by Levine
Andrade, one of the founder members of the Arditti Quartet.
The other instruments involved are organ, percussion and the
tanpura, an Indian instrument that produces a drone-like sound.
The texts selected by Whitbourn are by a number of mystic writers,
including St. John the Evangelist, St. Teresa of Avila and St.
Augustine. Whitbourn uses the forces at his disposal to create
some most imaginative and often subtle sonorities and textures
– the way the husky tones of the viola are employed is most
evocative. There’s some most effective writing for the choir
and the Indian overtones are not used to excess so that when
they feature in the musical palette the effect generated thereby
is all the stronger. The rapt concluding movement is particularly
beautiful but the whole score is impressive and eloquent and
its appearance on disc is most welcome.
The ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ were written for King’s College, Cambridge
and first performed there on Easter Sunday, 2005. The music
is impressive and often dramatic, especially in the Magnificat.
There are some passages of great power, such as at the doxology
of the Magnificat and at the words ‘to be a light to lighten
the Gentiles’ in the Nunc Dimittis. There are also some very
poetic stretches, especially at the beginning and end of the
second canticle. The only slight reservation I have is to wonder
in passing how frequently the canticles will be performed. The
tam-tam part, though optional, seems to me to be very important
and many church choirs won’t have access to such an instrument.
That part may be optional but the tenor solo role is absolutely
integral. It sounds very demanding, requiring a soloist of the
stature of Christopher Gillett to do it justice – Gillett is
excellent, by the way. I hope these impressive canticles won’t
languish unperformed, save on Big Occasions, simply because
the writing is too ambitious.
The smaller-scale pieces give much pleasure. It’s good to hear
the distinctive voice of Archbishop Tutu himself reading his
own words, even if his contribution is brief. Eternal Rest
was written to a BBC commission for the broadcast of the funeral
of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The music was originally
conceived for orchestra – and it’s not clear from the notes,
parts of which could have been more expressed with greater clarity,
whether it was the orchestral version that was used for the
funeral broadcast. If the choral version, with organ accompaniment,
is a later inspiration then it seems to me to work very well.
Of one that is so fair and bright uses, I think, the
same text that Britten uses for his A Hymn to the Virgin.
I can’t be sure since this is one of the texts not reproduced
in the booklet. Whitbourn’s setting, for unaccompanied voices,
is a good one.
The music on this disc reveals a composer with a fine ear for
vocal writing. The music sounds well conceived for the voices
and the accompaniments are, without exception, effective and
complement the singing very well. James Whitbourn has made a
shrewd choice of texts for these pieces and it’s obvious that
the words have inspired him. The performances seem to me to
be very good and accurate – though I haven’t seen any scores.
Commotio, a choir which I’ve not previously encountered, sings
very well indeed and the instrumentalists match the excellence
of the singers. I would imagine that Matthew Berry is fully
convinced by the music since he inspires performances of great
I’ve enjoyed this disc very much. James Whitbourn seems to be
a choral composer of no mean accomplishment.