The Naxos label celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2012.
It has evolved very significantly from its origins as a label
which issued budget price recordings, usually of the standard
repertoire and sometimes, it must be admitted, in performances
that sounded budget-priced. Nowadays it proudly boasts a vast
catalogue and the performances it issues are almost invariably
fit to stand comparison with the best. Crucially, Naxos regularly
issues recordings of unfamiliar music, quite a lot of which
was written in the twentieth- or even in the present century.
One area of the repertoire in which Naxos has carved out a very
valuable niche in recent years has been contemporary British
choral music. Among their most notable releases have been albums
of choral music by Judith Bingham (review),
James MacMillan (review)
and James Whitbourn (review).
I hope soon that Naxos will turn its attention to the choral
music of Gabriel Jackson. The aforementioned Whitbourn disc
was made by Matthew Berry and his choir, Commotio. Now they
have added a disc of unaccompanied pieces by Francis Pott.
One of the pieces on this new disc, Balulalow, was
written for Judy Martin and the choir of Christ Church Cathedral,
Dublin. They made a very fine disc of Pott’s music in 2005 (review)
and there’s a parallel between that disc and Commotio’s recital.
The Dublin choir sang Pott’s Mass in Five Parts (2004) and instead
of placing all the movements of the Mass together on the disc
they were split up and interspersed with other pieces. In his
booklet note for that Dublin disc the composer explained “the
dispersal [of the Mass] to various points in the present programme
alludes loosely to one’s experience of the Mass in a liturgical
context while serving a plausible purpose regarding tonal continuity
between successive tracks.” Exactly the same process has been
followed for this Naxos disc and once again I think it works
The Mass is a most interesting and, I think, important work.
It was commissioned in 2010 by Matthew Berry in memory of Dr
Anabela Bravo, a distinguished academic and former member of
Commotio, who had died of cancer at the age of just 47. The
composer had already begun to sketch an Agnus Dei back in 2009
and this was now incorporated into the Mass, which I suppose
we can regard as a Missa Brevis since the Creed is not set although
in performance the complete mass lasts for some forty-two minutes.
Pott’s debt to the masters of sixteenth-century polyphony is
clear and readily acknowledged; indeed, he has eagerly built
on the foundations laid by Tallis and Byrd in particular and
has a deep respect for that tradition. The Kyrie is, for most
of the time, sung at quite subdued dynamic levels but one is
conscious all the time of tension below the surface as a result
of the intricate part-writing. There are several passages where
use is made of a consort of solo voices (SSATTB), though the
soloists don’t always sing all together. The music is fluid
and one has a sense that it’s always moving forward, albeit
in a smooth flow.
The start of the Gloria is quite subdued but the music bursts
into life at ‘Laudamus Te’. From here on the textures become
much richer, though in the middle of the movement the music
is more quiet and flowing. The one concern I have is that for
much of this quite extended passage – from ‘Gratias agimus tibi’
(around 2:45) - the words are often quite indistinct, even when
listening through headphones. I don’t think this is the “fault”
of the choir, whose diction is good throughout the programme.
I suspect it’s a function of the use of rather “busy” textures
at a subdued dynamic – and the composer may have wanted the
words to be less than crystal clear. After ‘Quoniam tu solus
sanctus‘ (7:37) the momentum starts to build and the movement
ends exuberantly with an extended ‘Amen’ that is as ecstatic
as it is complex; it’s thrilling.
In the Sanctus I love the way light, dancing rhythms are employed
at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ and carried on into the ‘Hosanna’ which
becomes a deft dance of joy. Once more Pott uses dynamics –
in this case a gradual increase in volume – to telling effect.
The Benedictus is gentle and reflective and features a lovely
soprano solo, beautifully sung by Grace Davidson; towards the
end of the movement she’s joined in duet by Kate Smith, a member
of the choir. The textures are light and airy and I wonder if
the Benedictus is designed as the calm centre of the Mass. Somewhat
unusually in a setting of this type and overall duration the
Agnus Dei is the longest movement. Starting from quiet beginnings
– something of a trademark in this Mass – each of the three
sections of the movement grows in richness of texture and complexity
of polyphony. The music gradually increases in urgency, achieving
a peak around 8:00. From there it subsides, reprising, if I’m
not mistaken, at least the spirit and possibly the actual material
of the Benedictus before reaching a serene conclusion.
The Mass was shortlisted for the choral category of the 2011
British Composer Awards and surely merited that recognition.
It strikes me as a fine and moving work and I hope it will be
taken up by others through the exposure it gets from this excellent
first recording – but expert choirs only need apply, I should
think, since the music must be very demanding, though Commotio
are clearly equal to all its challenges.
They bring off the short individual pieces very well also. I’ve
already alluded to Balulalow. It’s a lovely little
piece, rapt and gentle, especially in verse 2 where a pure soprano
solo line soars quietly. Lament was inspired by the
death of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, one of the most prominent
casualties of the British military campaign in Afghanistan.
It’s a deeply felt setting of a short poem by Wilfrid Wilson
Gibson (1878-1962) and the very last words of the poem furnish
this CD with its title. That poem is printed in full in the
booklet. The only other set of words that are supplied is the
text to Mary’s Carol, a poem of Peter Dale (b. 1938).
Dale’s lovely words inspire an equally lovely setting from Francis
Pott. The remaining short pieces are equally fine. Let me just
mention one more, Ubi caritas. This brief setting,
“innocent of counterpoint” in the composer’s words, is intended
as an unobtrusive devotional piece, he says. I think it inhabits
the same rarefied space as Maurice Duruflé’s exquisite setting
of the same words – I can think of no higher compliment than
This is a most distinguished disc. The singing of Commotio is
consistently fine in every respect and Matthew Berry very obviously
understands what is required to put over Francis Pott’s music
convincingly, clearly and with empathy. The performances have
been recorded most sympathetically by Adrian Peacock and David
Wright in the ideal acoustic of Merton College Chapel. The notes,
by the composer himself, are extremely helpful.
Francis Pott is a significant composer and his choral music
in consistently rewarding. Collectors who are already familiar
with his music will certainly want to hear this disc, especially
for the chance to experience his new mass setting. The disc
offers an excellent opportunity for others to whom Pott’s music
may be new to sample it for themselves. Thereafter, I would
recommend newcomers make further exploration through the Dublin
Cathedral disc already mentioned before tackling the magnificent
The Cloud of Unknowing (review).
Anyone thinking of acquiring this disc can be assured that it
is a significant addition to the Naxos catalogue.