RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
Requiem (2008) [36:02]
In all his works (2009) [4:48]
I am the voice of the wind (2010) [6:57]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) after Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706) Canon (Rosa Mystica) (2007)* [3:32]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) Song for Athene (1993) [6:30]
Francis POTT (b. 1957) When David heard (2008)
Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse
*Carl Herring (guitar)
rec. 25-27 February, 2011, Tonbridge School Chapel, Tonbridge, Kent, UK. DDD
English texts included
NAXOS 8.573049 [70:06]
Ever since I heard on YouTube, quite some time ago, a tantalising excerpt - the first movement, I think - from the Vasari Singers’ première of Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem, which they commissioned, I’ve been keen to hear it in full and for a recording to arrive. Here it is. I’m a keen admirer of Jackson’s vocal music. I’ve heard quite a lot of it and he seems to me to be a fine and imaginative composer of choral music and one, moreover, with a discriminating eye for texts and the ability to marry words and his music most effectively.
Of his Requiem, which is for unaccompanied choir, like all the pieces on this disc, he writes that his initial intention was “to combine the solemn, hieratic grandeur of the great Iberian Requiems with something more personal, more intimate even, that could reflect the individual, as well as the universal experience of loss.” He’s interspersed words from the Latin Mass for the Dead with “poems from other cultures and spiritual traditions so as to embrace a more wide-ranging perspective on human mortality than the traditional Christian one.” Thus we find four sections from the Latin Mass - the Introit, Gradual, Sanctus/Benedictus and ‘Lux aeterna’ - juxtaposed with words from such diverse authors as an Australian Aborigine poet, Walt Whitman, a Japanese samurai warrior and an eighteenth-century Mohican chief. If all that sounds like an eclectic mix that may be the case but Jackson has integrated his texts most effectively.
The opening ‘Requiem aeternam I’ opens with a plainchant intonation and frequently you can glimpse - or sense - plainchant in the background during the four movements that set texts from the Mass. As is usual with Jackson, his textures are consistently fascinating and also very clear - and Jeremy Backhouse and his fine choir also ensure clarity through the quality of the singing. One thing I like very much about Gabriel Jackson is his respect for the human voice. He challenges his singers and he employs some vocal effects - such as syllabic repetition and aleatoric writing - yet he never writes anything that comes unnaturally to a singer, nor does he make unreasonable demands that produce ugly sounds. Indeed, luminosity of texture and sheer beauty of invention and sound are among the chief impressions that I fancy any listener to this Requiem will take away from it.
Jackson is modest too. By this I mean that he doesn’t seek to make the listener think how clever he is - though a lot of the music is indeed clever, in the sense that it’s technically accomplished. Rather, he puts his music at the service of the words. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the sixth of the work’s seven movements, ‘Peace, my heart’. Here Jackson sets some words by Rabindranath Tagore (1881-1941). The words are very beautiful in themselves and Jackson writes “the best a composer can do is to keep out of the way and try to give Tagore’s sublime words the reflective glow they cry out for.” I’d say that he’s completely successful in this aim. The music is hushed and slow and sounds very pure with some intriguingly subtle harmonies. For the last line - “I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way” - Jackson’s music suggests to me the gentle aura of a few candles burning in the middle distance in an otherwise dark church or similar building. This movement - the work’s ‘In Paradisum’? - contains music that is particularly gentle and radiant and the Vasari Singers give a super performance of it. In truth, the whole work is, for the most part, gentle and radiant, though there’s more overt energy in the Sanctus, which sounds like a rippling, light-footed dance. The standard of performance is extremely high. This is music in which I suspect there are no hiding places; it demands total concentration, accuracy of intonation and complete control of sustained vocal lines. Yet it seems to me that the Vasari Singers rise to all the challenges of the score and surmount them. Listening to this performance you suspect that the work means a lot to them; it certainly comes across that way.
It’s even more clear that there are personal associations with I am the voice of the wind. This was commissioned by one of the members of the choir and her husband in memory of their daughter, a very gifted young woman who died suddenly at the tragically young age of 24, not long after qualifying as a doctor. Jackson set a poem which the young lady, Geraldine Atkinson, had written at the age of thirteen. In lesser hands this could have been mawkish but Geraldine’s poem is full of “mercurial evanescence [and]… quiet inner strength”, as Jackson puts it and he has enhanced it through very beautiful music. On several occasions the male voices sing the words of the poem while the ladies sing aleatoric figures in the background. The effect of the ladies’ singing is to suggest the light fluttering of wings - butterflies, perhaps. In celebrating rather than mourning a successful young life cut short I think this piece is highly successful in a similar way to Jonathan Dove’s There Was a Child (review).
The remaining piece by Gabriel Jackson is In all his works. I’ve come across this before; it was included on a recent disc by the Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh (review). The piece is scored for ATTBB. The performances, both of which are very good, are quite distinctive and I think the key reason is that most of the Edinburgh altos are male while all the Vasari altos are ladies. The cutting edge of the male altos’ tone makes the top line stand out and now that I’ve heard a performance by a mixed choir I think the top line is too prominent in the Edinburgh performance. Vasari’s female altos produce a smoother sound and are much better integrated into the overall sound. It’s been suggested to me that the ladies invest the music with more tenderness and I think that’s true, especially in the opening pages. However, Jackson wrote the piece to be sung first at Canterbury Cathedral one presumes he envisaged male altos singing the top line. I also have the impression of slightly more spaciousness to the Vasari performance as compared with the Edinburgh one, which is odd since the overall timings are within a few seconds of each other. However, as I say, both performances are very good and it’s a wonderful piece.
The two pieces on this disc which are not receiving their first recordings are those by Bob Chilcott and Sir John Tavener. I’m an admirer of Chilcott’s vocal music but, to be honest, this piece, an adaptation of Pachelbel’s tedious Canon, is a fairly slight affair. However, it justifies its place in the programme by virtue of the fact that it sets Oscar Wilde’s poem, Requiescat. Tavener’s Song for Athene needs little or no introduction and it’s been recorded countless times, especially once it had been sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. I would say that the Vasari’s rendition is up there with the best of the recordings that have come my way; they convey the solemn spirit of the piece very well indeed and sing it very well.
The disc concludes with When David heard, an astonishing piece by Francis Pott. I first came across this when I was reviewing a disc that included Eric Whitacre’s setting of the same text. There’s much to admire in Whitacre’s setting but I feel that it loses its way in the middle, a trap which Francis Pott seems to me to avoid completely. Pott’s piece is for eight-part choir and the writing sounds to me to be extremely complex at times. From a slow, solemn start Pott builds the music inexorably and in his writing it seems to me that he conveys on the one hand the raw emotion of King David’s grief and, on the other, the need for him to preserve regal dignity, at least in public. Eventually (at 8:41), the piece achieves a searing climax on the words “Absalom, my son”, which sound as if they’ve been wrenched from the king’s heart. After this the music sinks back into the hushed, grave mood from which it first emerged. This eloquent, demanding piece is superbly performed.
In fact all the performances on this CD are first rate. I have the impression that this is a programme that matters to Jeremy Backhouse and his choir. The recorded sound is very good and the notes, which are chiefly by Gabriel Jackson and Francis Pott about their own works, are good. This is a disc that should be investigated by all those who are interested in contemporary choral music.
Should be investigated by all those who are interested in contemporary choral music.