RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Francis POTT (b. 1957)
In The Heart Of Things
Mass for eight parts (2011) [42.31]
Mary’s carol (2008) [4.51]
A Hymn to the Virgin (2002) [4.54]
I sing of a maiden (2000) [4.12]
Ubi caritas (2002) [3.13]
Balulalow (2009) [2.55]
Lament (2011) [4.23]
Grace Davidson (soprano)
Commotio/Matthew Berry rec. Merton College Chapel, Oxford, 15-17 July 2011
NAXOS 8.572739 [66.58]
The music of Francis Pott is becoming increasingly better known, and rightly so. As a composer of church music he is more reflective and less ‘commercial’ than (say) John Rutter or Howard Goodall, without going too far in the other direction and becoming unapproachable. Indeed much of his choral writing owes a great deal to the English masters of the romantic part-song. One is reminded here more than once of the other-worldly effects of ecstasy achieved by Delius in On Craig Ddu. Like Holst, one suspects that Pott is quite difficult to sing; but again like Holst, it all sounds quite natural and effortless when the performers are up to the task. And these performers most certainly are.
The main work on this disc is the Mass for eight parts which is a worthy successor not so much to Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor - it is more contrapuntally complex than that miniature masterpiece - as to Bernard Stevens’s beautiful Mass four double choir. There is the same sense of continuity with the old Tudor masters and the sheer delight in the interweaving of vocal lines. The singers convey the appropriate other-worldly sound without any sense of strain or effort. The heavenly acoustic of Merton College - surely a better recording space than King’s in Cambridge? - adds a halo of echo to the voices.
Pott certainly believes in challenging his predecessors; three of the settings on this disc come into direct competition with well-established pieces by Britten. A hymn to the Virgin was one of Britten’s earliest works, delightful music written when the composer was still a teenager; its use of echo effects looks back through Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia to the Tudor polyphonists. Pott’s setting does not have the same simplicity as Britten, but it responds beautifully to the text. His Balulalow comes into competition not just with Britten but with Warlock’s beautiful setting; all three use solo voices in conjunction with the choir. Grace Davidson here takes the palm for sheer beauty of voice which convinces one that this setting is fully the equal of its predecessors. In I sing of a maiden Pott actually surpasses Britten in the aptness of his response to the text; Britten’s hasty patter carol overlooks the essential element of stillness described in the original words. Incidentally the poem of Balulalow is attributed here to the Wedderburn brothers (c.1567). The Oxford Book of Carols describes it as an extract from a translation from Luther’s 1535 Vom Himmel hoch; but the clearly mediaeval vocabulary would seem to place the text a good century before the Elizabethan era – perhaps an earlier lyric was incorporated into the Wedderburns’ translation?
Mary’s Carol is set to a modern text and need fear no comparisons with any previous settings by other composers. It is a lovely little poem and Pott’s setting, if a little contrapuntally elaborate, responds well to the words. His setting of Ubi caritas is more straightforward and very beautiful indeed.
The whole disc is named after a line from Pott’s setting of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s Lament, an overwhelmingly anguished response to death in war: “But we, how shall we turn to little things…nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?” It was written in memory of a soldier killed in Afghanistan whose family was known to the composer. There is a real emotional charge in the music, and Pott’s setting of the final line is truly heart-breaking. But, but … this brings me to my one criticism of this otherwise superlative disc. The dying fall at the end of the Lament is suddenly and too soon interrupted by the final section of the Mass. The mass setting is not given as one whole piece - despite the recurrent material from movement to movement = but in three segments dispersed through the length of the CD. There is no explanation for this dismemberment of the score, nor is there any indication that the other items are to be regarded as interpolations into the body of the mass to make a more substantial composite work; the dates of composition extend over ten years. I cannot help but feel that this arrangement is a mistake, and the disc would have been made better as a whole if the closing line of the Lament were left to die away into silence. This can always be corrected by re-programming the tracks.
The singing throughout, by both soloist and choir, is absolutely impeccable. This is a most beautiful disc of some absolutely beautiful music.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
A most beautiful disc of some absolutely beautiful music.
also see the review by John Quinn