Alec ROTH (b. 1948)
Earthrise (2010) [24.51]
Hymn to Gaia [13.56]
Sol Justitiae (2009) [4.00]
Shared Ground (2007) [23.31]
Ponticelli (2007) [22.14]
Philippe Honoré (violin)
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. Hawkesyard Priory, 29-30 June and 1 July 2011
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD270 [42.27 + 49.00]
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 Cathedra.
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 manner.
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 my emotions.
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)
Music that is well put together and finely crafted. Choral textures of great beauty and melodic interest.