Will TODD (b. 1970)
The Call of Wisdom
The Lord is My Shepherd (2009) [4:48]
Stay With Me, Lord [7:44]
The Call of Wisdom [5:12]
Man Unkind (1996) [5:09]
My Lord Has Come [3:25]
That We May Love Again (2009) [6:21]
Vidi Speciosam [7:03]
Among Angels (2006) [14:37]
You Have Seen the House Built [5:42]
I Sing Because…[6:39]
Tenebrae; English Chamber Orchestra/Nigel Short
rec. dates and venue not specified
English texts included

This is not my first encounter with the music of Will Todd on disc. I reviewed his Mass in Blue some time ago and then last year I tackled a CD that included his Durham Jazz Evensong as well as some shorter individual pieces. I enjoyed Mass in Blue, though I thought the solo jazz soprano role was a little overdone at times, but was rather less impressed with the second disc. Now Todd’s music has been taken up on disc by Nigel Short and his crack choir, Tenebrae.
I can completely understand the logic behind issuing discs like this which are devoted to a single composer. However, this can sometimes pose a problem for a reviewer who, almost by definition, is likely to listen to most, if not all, of the contents at once: it’s not really feasible to listen to a couple of tracks and then listen to a bit more the next day and so on. The problem arises if the music on the programme is insufficiently varied and I’m afraid this is the case here. What I found so interesting and stimulating about Mass in Blue was the variety of the music, albeit within the jazz idiom. In particular, some of the music was slow and expressive while other passages were fast and exciting. I’m afraid whoever has put this latest programme of Todd’s music together has not done him any favours.
The trouble is that so much of the music is in a slow or moderate tempo. Eventually I was craving some music in a more upbeat tempo. Finally, with the third movement of Among Angels my prayers were answered but this was track 10 of the disc and nearly fifty minutes into the programme. Even then, the fast music lasted for about 90 seconds before lapsing into a slow speed. Worse still, the first seven items on the disc are rather similar. Heard individually, they are pleasant - and sometimes more than that - but there’s a certain blandness to everything, at least to my ears, and programming these pieces one after another induces a feeling of ennui.
But then we get to Among Angels (tracks 8 - 10) and something happens. This three-movement piece was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation for performance at a concert in Salzburg in 2006 by The Sixteen. The work is scored for SATB choir with harp accompaniment. Listening to it you feel that, given the possibility of performance by a virtuoso chamber choir, Todd’s imagination has been liberated. The three movements of this work are unlike anything else on the disc in the sense that we find the composer exploring and exploiting the possibilities of choral textures - and doing so most effectively. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Among Angels is great music but it’s imaginative and resourceful and it is, by some distance, the most interesting on Tenebrae’s programme. I should say that the piece which follows it, You Have Seen the House Built, is also very interesting. This piece, for choir and organ, was inspired by the colours that are on display in the many works of art in Chichester Cathedral. A powerful organ introduction and a very arresting first entry for the choir set the tone for the music that follows. Todd is inspired by the text - by T. S. Eliot - to produce some powerful music and a memorable piece is the result. If I’d been planning this disc I’d have made this the first track.
As I said, the remaining pieces are nice enough individually but there’s a certain sameness about much of the music. Two of the pieces, The Lord is My Shepherd and That We May Love Again are excerpts from a more substantial work, Todd’s Te Deum, and I’d be interested to know how they fit within that larger context. It may well be that each provides a reflective or peaceful interlude between more powerful movements in the Te Deum. Heard individually both give pleasure, even if the thematic material of The Lord is My Shepherd sounds a bit limited, leading to a feeling of repetitiveness. That We May Love Again is a setting of some lines by Ben Dunwell, a frequent collaborator with Todd, and Todd’s committed music rises to the prayerful mood of the text. I would probably have admired it more if it hadn’t been surrounded by so much other slow, sometimes rather bland music.
Man Unkind is also taken from a bigger work, the oratorio St. Cuthbert. I’ve not heard that work but the recording of it was warmly received by no less than three of my colleagues (review). There’s a bit more grit in the harmonies than is the case with some of the other pieces, though there are some easy-sounding passages too: one wonders what it sounds like in the context of the complete oratorio.
The Call of Wisdom receives its first recording hot off the press since it was first heard as recently as June 2012 at the special service in St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Then it was sung - very nicely - by a specially formed children’s choir. Here it is given in an SATB version. It made a good impression when sung by the children but now, in the hands of adults it sounds a little bland. I might feel differently about it if I were to hear it in a programme of music by other composers.
I’ve heard a couple of the pieces before. My Lord Has Come is a Christmas piece. It’s simple and rather lovely; this is a very effective composition. Vidi Speciosam contains some interesting harmonies that, at times, colour the words well. However, placing it in the company of much other slow tempo material is a disadvantage, I feel, and the musical material does sound to be spread a little thinly; pruning the piece by a couple of minutes might have worked wonders.
There’s a good deal to enjoy here though the quality of the musical invention is uneven and much of it lacks the grit and originality that made Mass in Blue stand out. As you’d expect, the performances by Tenebrae are consistently excellent so in that respect Will Todd’s music has been well served it’s just a pity that the programme is something of a mixed bag.
John Quinn

Will Todd’s music is well served by Tenebrae but the programme is something of a mixed bag.