John A. SPEIGHT (b. 1945)
Barn er oss fætt (Unto Us) - A Christmas Oratorio (2001)
Elin Ósk Óskardóttir (soprano); Guðrún Johanna Ólafsdóttir (mezzo); Garðar ThórCortes (tenor); Benedikt Ingólfsson (bass)
Schola Cantorum Reykjavicensis; Mótettukór Hallgrímskirkju
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Hörður Áskelsson
rec. live, 22 December 2002, Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik
Icelandic text and English translation included
Unto us - for ease of reference I hope I’ll be forgiven for using the work’s English title - was composed in 2001 and premièred in Reykjavik’s Hallgrímskirkja on 30 December that year under the direction of Hörður Áskelsson, the cantor of the church. A further performance, also conducted by Áskelsson, was given a year later and is preserved on this CD. The work is scored for soloists, two choirs - in this performance comprising respectively 16 voices and 41 voices - and an orchestra consisting of strings, two oboes, cor anglais and percussion. It’s claimed to be the most substantial Christmas work by an Icelandic composer to date. As you may infer from the forces involved in this performance, though the music sometimes achieves powerful climaxes much of the piece tends to be more chamber-like in scale.
Though John A. Speight is described in the booklet as an Icelandic composer - and fairly so, since he has been a citizen of that country for many years - he was born in England and studied singing and composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama before moving to Iceland in 1972; he has lived there ever since. During his time at the Guildhall he was also a private composition pupil of Richard Rodney Bennett.
I should mention straightaway a practical problem in appraising this work. The booklet includes an English translation of what I found to be a very helpful note by Valdemar Pálsson and there’s also an English translation of the Icelandic text. Unfortunately the sung text and its translation are not placed side by side. Thus I found myself constantly flitting back and forth between Pálsson’s note - which is a useful guide to where we are in the music - and the two versions of the sung text. I found it very difficult at times to work out exactly what was being sung, especially by the choir, in a very unfamiliar language and then compare that with the English translation. A more considerate booklet layout would have helped.
The oratorio is cast in three parts. The first, which is by some distance, the longest - it accounts for virtually half the length of the work - takes its text from three sources. The two main ones are Psalm 130 (‘Out of the depths’) and verses from chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah. Towards the end there’s a setting of verses of the Lutheran hymn ‘Nun kommt der Heiden Heiland’. In essence, this section is all about the travails of God’s chosen people prior to the birth of Christ and their appeals for help. The prevailing mood is, unsurprisingly, sombre and earnest. Much of the music is in either a slow or moderate tempo and at times it’s quite anguished in tone. I’m afraid I found the seriousness of tone was not very encouraging to the listener - or at least to this listener. To be honest, I think the trouble is that this section is too long. I think it’s perfectly legitimate in a Christmas work to reflect on the spiritual darkness prior to the birth of Christ; after all, that’s precisely what Handel did in Part I of Messiah. However, Handel managed to achieve this without penning lengthy stretches of gloomy music - there are frequent hints in his music of better things to come, and often these are far more than hints. I’m afraid Speight sustains his dark mood for far too long and by the time a rather lovely homophonic setting of ‘Nun kommt der Heiden Heiland’ for unaccompanied choir end the movement it’s too late - or at least, it came too late for me. Furthermore, I think the length of Part One unbalances the work, given the subject matter of Part One. If I may put it this way, rather too much time is devoted to travails in the BC era and insufficient to celebration of Christmas itself.
Part Two, the shortest section, opens with a verse of another Lutheran hymn, ‘Von Himmel hoch’, and then the rest of the movement sets various verses from Isaiah, prophesying the birth of Christ. There’s an attractive soprano solo in this section and later some effective writing for the choir. In general the music in this section strikes a more optimistic note and is more engaging than much of what we heard in Part One.
Part Three sets two sections of St, Luke’s Gospel. The first of these relates the Annunciation, including Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat. The second tells of the birth of Christ and the Angelic announcement of his birth to the shepherds. The Magnificat is given to the mezzo soloist, accompanied by a string quartet and the cor anglais. Here the music is intimate and often delicate and Guðrún Johanna Ólafsdóttir sings it expressively. However, even in Part Three, much of the music is, at least to my ears, serious in tone. It’s only in the last couple of minutes, when the message of the Angels is proclaimed powerfully, that the music seems to attain anything like the optimism that I would expect.
The performers seem to engage with the music with great commitment and, so far as I can judge, given that the music is so unfamiliar to me, the performance seems to be a good one. The soloists form a good team though I think the ladies outshine the men and the tenor exhibited signs of strain once or twice. The sound is good and, though the recording was made at a live performance, the audience is commendably silent.
I don’t know if it’s possible to perform Unto Us in a language other than Icelandic - say English or German. If not its appeal and circulation is likely to be extremely limited, I suspect. To be honest, however, I’m not sure that language is the only problem with this work. There is no doubt that it is a sincere piece, indeed, it’s deeply-felt at times. However, I just find it too earnest for its own good. That’s a subjective reaction which others may well not share. However, for all the evident sincerity of the music I didn’t experience a great sense of Christmas joy during most of its sixty-seven minutes duration. Others may well respond more positively - I hope they do - but I doubt that Unto Us is a work to which I’ll return at Christmases in the future.
John Quinn
A sincere piece but with little evidence of Christmas joy.