After listening to these discs I was struck by the beautiful
contours of Alec Roth’s music. It is all finely constructed,
with a profound sense of line. Firmly tonal in base, Roth has
a strong melodic gift and an ear for texture. No wonder Ex Cathedra
like his music and have performed a considerable amount of it.
Roth is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the writer
Vikram Seth. They have collaborated on a number of works, including
Songs in time of War which is also available from Signum
Records. Shared Ground and Ponticelli are the
second of their collaborations, both premiered in 2007 by Ex
For this project a third presence hovers in the background,
that of George Herbert the 17th century poet. Seth
discovered Herbert’s poetry in his teens and in 2003 bought
George Herbert’s house. In 2007, whilst staying in the
house in Seth’s absence, Roth set the six poems that make
up Shared Ground. He also wrote the work for solo violinPonticelli
inspired by the brides in the gardens of the house.
Seth’s texts for Shared Ground are linked directly
to specific George Herbert poems; though Seth’s poems
lack Herbert’s intense spirituality. So that, for instance,
Lost, the first poem of the group uses the same rhyming
scheme as Herbert’s poem Paradise, where each verse
uses a single word at the end of each line, but pared of a letter
each time (Spray, Pray, Ray). In fact Herbert cheats and his
first verse uses Grow, Row and Ow (instead of Owe).
The two works are presented separately on the CD, but Roth’s
idea is that they will stand either as separate works or interlinked
ones with the choral movements interspersed with the violin
solos. The CD booklet includes instructions as to how to programme
your CD so that the two works can be played in an interlinked
This is perhaps a mistake as most people will not be inclined
to go to the bother of doing the programming and so will miss
a striking experience. For me the two works are far stronger
linked than they are as separate entities.
Shared Ground is a beautifully wrought set of part-songs,
six in all, very English in feel and harking back to English
music of the 20th century and earlier.
Roth describes Ponticelli as a partita; it is a suite
for unaccompanied violin, here played by Philippe Honoré.
Shared Ground and Ponticelli are on the second
CD of this 2 CD set, slightly poor value at 91 minutes of music
in total. The recital finishes rather aptly with a fine setting
of a George Herbert poem, The Flower.
The first disc presents a group of Roth’s choral works
which have no connection with Vikram Seth.
Earthrise is a three movement piece setting Latin biblical
texts. It has a slightly curious eco-political message, with
links to the first Apollo landing on the moon and images of
the earth from the moon. This might have worked better with
a grittier text, rather than Roth’s well chosen verses
from Job, Isaiah, Psalms and Proverbs. The titles encapsulate
the work’s message: Man’s Desire to Explore and
Exploit, Contemplation of the Earth Seen from Space
and A Plea for True Wisdom and Understanding.
The great interest of the piece is that it was written for Ex
Cathedra’s fortieth anniversary and is in forty parts.
In doing this Roth pays homage to music of the past. He has
created a work of great beauty with long ethereal interweaving
lines. Even so it does seem aurally a little divorced from the
message, though Roth captures something of visionary intensity.
Earthrise is followed by a work, Hymn to Gaia,
which sets different Greek texts of the hymn to Gaia. Here Roth
adds a drum and a children’s choir to create some infectious
and highly popular textures. Finally, on the first CD, we hear
Sol Justitiae to a Latin text by a 19th century
principal of Hatfield Hall, University of Durham.
Alec Roth is a fluent writer who can create choral textures
of great beauty and melodic interest. His music is well put
together and finely crafted. Judging by Ex Cathedra’s
enthusiasm for this composer, I suspect his music is rather
satisfying to sing. For me as a listener there was a little
something missing; that grit in the oyster. Repeated listening
left me feeling pleasantly entertained but unfulfilled. I wanted
the music to move me in deeper ways than the superficial; I
wanted depth and intensity as well as gorgeous textures.
Perhaps part of my response can be attributed to my being a
composer. I don’t want Roth to write my music, certainly
not. I want him to tax my brain, stretch my ear and challenge
Not everyone will agree with me. The fact that Ex Cathedra has
had such success with Roth’s music testifies to this.
The CD booklet includes an article on the music with extensive
quotes from Roth and from Seth, plus full texts and translations.
The performances from Ex Cathedra under their conductor Jeffrey
Skidmore are well nigh perfect. Alec Roth must be pleased with
this highly polished and finished product.
also see the review by John
Quinn (February 2012 Recording of the Month)