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David Owen NORRIS (b.1953)
Prayerbook (2006)
Peter Savidge (baritone); Fiona Hymns and Lauren Fowler (sopranos);
David Coram (organ); Navarra String Quartet
The Waynflete Singers; Over-the-Bridge; Choristers of New College, Oxford
/Instrumental ensemble/David Owen Norris
rec. 13-14 September 2012, Romsey Abbey. DDD
English texts included
EM RECORDS EMR CD010 [73:57]

David Owen Norris is probably best known to most people as a pianist and broadcaster. He is also a composer and a number of his works have been taken up by the English Music Festival. It was at the first Festival in 2006 that Prayerbook received its first performance. Since then his Piano Concerto has been played there and the 2013 Festival was the occasion of the première of his Symphony.
Prayerbook is founded in Norris’s great love of the Book of Common Prayer and much of the libretto, which he has fashioned, comes from the BCP. There are other sources too and though these are listed at the end of the libretto in the booklet I would have found it more helpful if each source had been cited after the relevant passage of text, a common practice which makes identification a lot easier. The work is subtitled ‘An Oratorio about Tradition and Change’ and Norris says that the work offers “a potted history of religious and political controversy in England”. I’m afraid I don’t quite get that. ‘Tradition and Change’ are not illustrated very clearly in the libretto; still less do I discern any historical narrative. Indeed, one problem that I have with this work is that I feel that the libretto does not flow. I’m sure the fault is mine but I really have struggled with the scheme and design of this work.

There’s a short video on the composer’s website in which he gives a talk about the work, illustrated with musical examples. That’s actually an introduction to a live performance which these same performers gave in Romsey Abbey the night before the recording sessions. Unfortunately, I only found this after I’d finished listening to the recording and as I was about to type up this review. In many ways I wish I’d seen the video before listening because I might have understood a bit more about what’s going on in Prayerbook: for all Norris’s accomplishments as a broadcaster about music I don’t find his booklet note as helpful and clear as I would have liked.
The oratorio is scored for baritone and soprano soloists - a second soprano, Lauren Fowler, is listed but I suspect her part is secondary. There are also parts for SATB choir, trebles and a Barbers Shop Quartet - the Cambridge-based group, Over-the-Bridge. There’s a prominent and demanding part for organ - played here by the excellent David Coram - and the rest of the accompaniment is provided by a string quartet, three trombones, trumpet, timpani and percussion.
The work is divided into three parts, respectively entitled ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’ and there’s a Trinitarian aspect since each part represents a member of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The music is often dramatic and always accessible but I would describe it as variable in the sense that I found it hard consistently to engage with it. One reason for this is that I didn’t always find myself on Norris’s wavelength, something which may well not be a problem for other listeners. For example, in Part III he sets the Table of Kindred and Affinity from the BCP - the list of people who may not marry others - as a double fugue involving the Barbers Shop Quartet and the Chorus. It’s entertaining up to a point - and technically correct, I’m sure - but I’m afraid I simply lost patience with it after a while. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear to me what function this passage of text serves at this point in the work - it does follow a setting of Love divine all loves excelling but that’s not actually a wedding hymn, though it’s often used as such. Even more mystifying is the decision to set in Part II, for soprano solo and chorus, the words ‘In Quires and Places where they sing here followeth the Anthem’. In the video Norris explains that these are his favourite words in the BCP but it’s an instruction not a prayer so I can’t see what he’s getting at, the more so since he doesn’t then follow that setting with an anthem. His music for this Rubric is not unattractive but he spins it out for over four minutes and it’s just too long. I’m also unconvinced by his settings of one or two well-known hymns, such as O God, our help in ages past and Love divine all loves excelling; the latter may be a new tune but I’m unsure. These sound too fussy to me.
I enjoyed some other passages much more. The baritone has two arias, both of which set words written by Dr. David Jenkins, the retired Bishop of Durham. Both are inventive and interesting and they are sung excellently by Peter Savidge. A little later there’s a dramatic setting of The Litany. Perhaps this is a bit over-long but the music, which the composer describes as a ‘brutal march’, graphically illustrates the evils and misfortunes from which deliverance is sought. Towards the end I was impressed with the movement entitled ‘Chaconne: A Dark Speaking’ in which there is a very powerful first section followed by some calmer, more lyrical music.
The performance, under the composer’s direction, is strongly committed. Peter Savidge is excellent; the less experienced Fiona Hymns is not at his level though she offers some ardent singing at times. The choral singing is good but not flawless. The instrumental playing is incisive. Engineer Richard Bland has done a fine job - the organ, brass and percussion sound particularly thrilling.
This work does not really ‘do it’ for me but others may respond more positively. I hope so since this is a patently sincere composition and it’s good that there’s a recording to bring it to a wider public. If you do decide to investigate Prayerbook I’d recommend that you make the video, which I mentioned earlier, your first stop.
John Quinn