Karl JENKINS (b.1944)
The Peacemakers (2011)
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Chloë Hanslip (violin), Ashwin Shrinivasan (bansuri), Gareth Davies (flute), Davy Spillane (uillean pipes), Nigel Hitchcock (soprano saxophone), Laurence Cottle (bass guitar), Clive Bell (shakuhachi), Jody K Jenkins (ethnic percussion), Berlin Radio Choir, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Really Big Chorus (1000 voices), London Symphony Orchestra/Karl Jenkins
rec. various venues, London, Berlin, Ireland, April-June 2011
EMI CLASSICS 084378-2 [72.42]
In the late twentieth century a new phenomenon appeared in the field of classical music, something that fitted comfortably into neither of the old and recognised categories of ‘light’ or ‘serious’ music, although it was more ‘serious’ than ‘light’. These were works that espoused earnest and heartfelt moral and spiritual intentions, but avoided the acerbities of the more avant-garde school of classical composers. The first work of this type to achieve widespread popular acclaim was Górecki’s Third Symphony, which had already won recognition from a small number of aficionados since it was written in 1976 but which suddenly became a worldwide bestseller in the Nonesuch recording by Dawn Upshaw. It was followed by a more widespread interest in the music of Arvo Pärt, who had also been around for some years. In recent years the major contributions in this field have come from Britain, and in particular from composers such as Howard Goodall and Karl Jenkins. These composers have managed to achieve massive popular appeal without abandoning the basic tenets of ‘serious’ classical music. The sleeve-note for this issue informs us that Karl Jenkins is now “the world’s most performed living composer” thanks largely to over 1000 performances of his The Armed Man: A mass for peace since its première in 2000.
The Peacemakers, the composer informs us, is a successor to The Armed Man and a continuing plea for the peace that continues to elude the world. He takes texts from a huge variety of sources, amasses recordings from a number of different locations assembling them in the studio, and employs a quite alarming variety of styles in each of the different movements. In order to expedite future performances, the booklet lists seven ways in which the work can be shortened or otherwise re-scored to allow for choirs to take the piece into their repertory. If so many of the elements in the work are optional, one is forced to wonder, what would be left? On the other hand a performance including all the forces included on this disc would be totally impracticable; and in fact was totally impracticable, since this performance was assembled from so many different recording sessions.
There is a very real problem with this sort of assembled performance. In order for all the elements to fit together, they have to be shoe-horned into the prescribed time-frame of an overall soundtrack. This means that any slight deviations of tempo from that framework must be avoided, so that all the recorded elements can be welded together subsequently. Under the circumstances it can be no surprise that there is an element of autopilot discernible in the performances. The repeated phrases of Amen at the end of the movement Healing light: a Celtic prayer are desperately longing to be allowed to breathe and slow down slightly to allow the music to descend towards the sense of rest it so ardently desires. The choir in Berlin recorded in April 2011 have to keep pace with the prescribed speed to allow the orchestra to be added in June 2011 at sessions in London. That the whole hangs together is a testimony to the professionalism of the performers, not least the composer himself as conductor; but there is a real price to be paid in terms of loss of spontaneity. This is even more noticeable when the following movement Meditation is allowed a natural ritenuto at the end, presumably because the solo soprano was present at the recording at the same time as the orchestra. This latter movement, by the way, uses a poem by Terry Waite which is praiseworthy enough in its sentiments but is expressed in words of alarming banality. There are similar problems with some of the other texts set in English translations by deservedly anonymous translators.
This has been preceded by a number of settings of words by other ‘peacemakers’ including some rather fine settings of words by Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, although with the setting of lines from Shelley’s Elegy on the Death of John Keats it is rather startling to find the writer of The Mask of Anarchy treated as a peacemaker, nor does one think that Shelley himself would have recognised the soubriquet.
The centrepiece of any work by Karl Jenkins, it seems, has to be a movement for a solo string player which can be extracted and presented as a separate item for broadcast or publicity purposes. In The Armed Man it took the form of a solo for Julian Lloyd Webber on cello; here we have a piece written for Chloë Hanslip entitled Solitude, pleasant enough but totally unconnected to the rest of the work - the advice for future performances even suggests that it can be omitted altogether! Its sense of Szymanowski-like rapture is not a patch on its model from The Armed Man, which was also linked to the rest of the work by the use of the chorus, which we are denied here. It is a very nice piece, and Hanslip plays it very well, but its commercial purpose seems all too obvious.
There are also problems with some of the more upbeat music. The Fanfara, setting the single word Peace in a total of twenty-one different identified languages with a sometimes startling disregard for their proper accentuation, is relatively short and harmless. The intermezzo Solitude is succeeded by a lengthy movement Fiat pax which sounds at best like an echo of Bloch’s Sacred Service and at worst like a passage from a particularly overblown Biblical epic of the 1940s (the 1000 voices of the Really Big Choir having to be recorded in five separate shifts of 200 voices each). The words by Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer, among others, are totally overwhelmed by this. Surely the whole point of gigantic choirs like this is the emotional temperature that is raised by the sheer scale of the enterprise. Recording them in smaller batches surely undoes half the point of the exercise? The following He had a dream, paraphrasing Martin Luther King and welding his words with Every valley, opens with a passage for the saxophone which recalls irresistibly the collaborations of Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble from the 1990s (ECM). Hitchcock’s improvisations are fine, but inevitably sound second-hand since we have heard this sort of thing so often before.
The dove features a nicely sung solo by a boy treble - presumably from the CBSO Youth Chorus - and it seems rather mean, when so many other artists are named as taking part in this recording, that he is left anonymous. Again one feels the straitjacket of overdubbing, with the choir and solo violin recorded five days before the flute and orchestra were added. One longs for a bit of give-and-take in the persistently rocking accompaniment, even the slightest hint of rubato.
No more war comes as a quite a shock after the rather beautiful setting of the Peace Prayer of St Francis of Assisi - the attribution of authorship is incorrect; the words did not appear until the twentieth century. We have a background of ethnic drums to a chorus accompanied by pizzicato strings, to which in due course further saxophone improvisations are added together with the children’s chorus. Here the necessary rhythmic precision works to advantage but the movement does not sound like part of the whole. This is reinforced by the following movement Let there be justice for all, setting a very well-chosen passage by Nelson Mandela to a finely honed vocal line from the chorus with a very effective accompaniment spiced with African ethnic music. This is one of the best movements in the piece, and it rises to a really magnificent climax before it dies away rather too abruptly in the marimbas. One can imagine it could have been even better if the climax had been allowed a bit more room to expand.
The final movement uses the 1000 voices in their quintuply-dubbed appearance in a movement that starts off like Elgar’s Coronation Ode, moves with rapid speed to Praise ye from Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and then back to Elgar again. “Pray for peace” say the words by the composer’s wife; but the music speaks of grandiosity, not of any sense of prayer or of peace. The children’s choir interrupt from a distance (echoes of Britten’s War Requiem) with the words of Ann Frank: “How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” – but the word “single” is extended over a long melismatic phrase that is very far from singular. Then the Elgar-Walton combination comes back in its full pomposity. Britten at the end of his War Requiem managed this sort of synthesis of different layers of sound, but it comes as the result of a hard-fought struggle. Karl Jenkins here simply piles his elements together with the sense of triumph that seems all too easy. Perhaps what we really long for is a big tune to round it all off, like Elgar does in the Coronation Ode; but there can only be one Land of hope and glory, after all.
Karl Jenkins does not need a good or a bad review to make certain that The Peacemakers will be taken up enthusiastically by choral societies around the world. It will make its way quite well with total indifference to the praises and curses of the critics. It has to be said that this is a less unified work than The Armed Man, and the many different pieces do not add up to a sense of an inevitable whole. The many excellent elements do not cohere, and the climactic moments are at once too easy and too overblown.
The individual performances from everybody involved are excellent, and one must note in particular the faultless English enunciation and idiom of the Berlin chorus. The recording, within the limits imposed by its artificial method of construction, is spacious and convincing.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
The many excellent elements do not cohere, and the climactic moments are at once too easy and too overblown.