Francis POTT (b. 1957)
In The Heart Of Things
Mass for Eight Parts (2011): Kyrie eleison [6:54]
Mass for Eight Parts: Gloria in excelsis Deo [12:01]
Mary’s Carol (2008) [4:51]
A Hymn to the Virgin (2002) [4:54]
I Sing of a Maiden (2000) [4:12]
Mass for Eight Parts: Sanctus [4:37]
Mass for Eight Parts: Benedictus* [6:19]
Ubi caritas (2002) [3;13]
Balulalow (2009)* [2:55]
Lament (2011) [4:23]
Mass for Eight Parts: Agnus Dei [12:40]
*Grace Davidson (soprano)
rec. 15-17 June 2011, Merton College Chapel, Oxford. DDD
NAXOS 8.572739 [66:58]
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 very well.
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 that.
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.
An excellent collection of choral music by Francis Pott in consistently fine performances.