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Alec ROTH (b. 1948)
A Time to Dance [61.16]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Hatfield Service) (2008) [6.38]
Men and Angels (2014) [3.57]
Grace Davidson (soprano); Matthew Venner (alto); Samuel Boden (tenor); Greg Skidmore (bass); Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. 14-16 August 2014, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
HYPERION CDA68144 [71.52]

Of the two short pieces that complete this programme, the “Mag and Nunc” is serene and short on incident. Only rarely does the composer choose to illustrate the text, as Howells might have done. There is much unison writing over an omnipresent, skippingly rhythmic organ motif. It sounds very simple, but I suspect that this poised and delicate performance from Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra was achieved only after a fair amount of work. The accompaniment is provided by a small chamber organ, and Roth’s booklet note explaining why it was conceived for the left hand only will make you smile. Men and Angels, a tender setting of a George Herbert poem, brings the disc to a gentle close.

A Time to Dance is an ambitious cantata for four vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. It was commissioned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer Music Society of Dorset, and was first performed by Ex Cathedra in Sherborne Abbey in June 2012. I have suggested that Roth is an engaging annotator of his own works – would that all composers might follow his lead! – but I suggest you listen to the work before reading about it. If you want to follow the words, they are all provided, but better, I think, to sit back and enjoy what you hear, especially the first time. You’ll be able to read later why Roth decided to structure the work in four parts, relating simultaneously to the seasons and to the daily clock. You will also learn that the other work in the Sherborne Abbey programme was Bach’s Magnificat, prompting Roth to use the same orchestral forces. The work can be performed on period instruments, which is the case here, though modern instruments are possible too. Roth dispensed with Bach’s timpani, preferring a range of percussion instruments some of which Johann Sebastian would have struggled to recognise!

The work progresses from Spring to Winter, with an opening Processional, a Prologue, an Epilogue and a closing “After-Dance”. The composer sets no fewer than 26 texts in English. The work has much in common, therefore, with Britten’s Spring Symphony, or with Gordon Crosse’s Changes (1966, Lyrita SRCD259) and Jonathan Dove’s There Was A Child (2009, Signum SIGCD285), two less-mainstream works that I mention in the hope that readers will want to explore them. Roth’s music is tonal and immediately accessible, more so, arguably, than any one of these works. I’ll be returning to this.

The sung procession into the concert room is followed by a Prologue that features a radiant depiction of sunrise, prompting thoughts of the “Licht” moment in Haydn’s Creation. I’ll be coming back to this later too.

Each vocal soloist is allotted a particular “quarter” of the work. Grace Davidson is feeling pretty positive, as would most of us on any given Spring morning. Motor rhythms in the first chorus give way to a setting of Blake with more than a touch of Gospel. I don’t know many composers who could get away with that, but Roth does. No praise is too high for Davidson’s ravishing singing, nor for the superb performance from Ex Cathedra’s singers and instrumentalists. Roth’s choral writing is masterly, and he is again confident enough to employ unison singing when the music and text demand it. His orchestral writing is of great originality.

Summer Noon gets off to a cracking start with an erotic poem from Ovid set as a habanera, complete with oboe d’amore solo. (You’ll now be getting the feel of a composer who takes risks!) And it didn’t take much musicological insight on my part to perceive the cruel fate of the flutter-tonguing fly in the next song. Summer ends with a torrid jazz riff on … natural trumpet, what else?

Shakespeare teaches us that “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”. Here, in Autumn, as far as most maidens are concerned, “when youth is done / There’s nought but humdrum”. For this song, Roth conjures up one of those deeply irritating tunes that lodges itself in the mind and refuses to leave. And fear not, there is at least one more of those to come, fiendishly plotted by the composer. The accompanying ensemble includes a hotel desk bell and a washboard. Of such outlandish ideas is this remarkable work constructed. I can think of no greater compliment to the composer or his soloists than to say that the music fits each voice like a glove. I haven’t mentioned Samuel Boden or Greg Skidmore yet, so in praising the wonderfully expressive autumnal singing of Matthew Venner I take the opportunity to confirm that each of the soloists lives up to the high expectations created by Grace Davidson. In the final Autumn song, the composer evokes the evening star’s “radiant crown” and the “silver dew” scattered on the flowers with disarming simplicity. Equally felicitous is the writing for two flutes in the first song of Winter, as snow falls. And if Winter requires that the music and sentiments be cold, well, so be it and so it is. Yet the chorus’s refusal to be intimidated, in “A Glee for Winter”, is accompanied by stunningly exuberant trumpets.

A year, and indeed each single day, always come full circle before renewal. The Epilogue of A Time to Dance mirrors this with a return to the sunrise as heard in the Prologue. But Roth doesn’t finish there, preferring, as in performances at London’s Globe, to bring his actors off the stage and out of character to dance and sing for the audience. Roth’s “After-dance” gives a verse to each soloist, with a short chorus whose melody is even more stubbornly adhesive than the earlier one. You might not be popular, whistling it round the house for hours. The chorus is required to dance – it is one of the work’s principal themes, after all – with its members obliged to put down their scores for some modest hand clapping.

Here is a question that must be asked: is music so resolutely tonal as this a valid means of expression today? A CD review is hardly the place to search for an answer, but it can’t be ignored that tonality was already under strain even before Wagner and his “Tristan chord”. When reviewing three of Roth’s string quartets for this site (Nimbus NI6321) I wrote that “a composer with as rich an aural imagination as Roth’s does not need to employ an extensive musical vocabulary.” That view has been reinforced as I have got to know this remarkable cantata. As for the music itself, many composers’ names might be evoked when searching for influences. Britten, certainly, would figure in such a list, as would John Adams and Steve Reich, and many others. But this is highly original and individual music that, in truth, sounds like no other. I have already mentioned one more composer, though, in connection with this work. One my teachers, many years ago, referred to Haydn’s Nelson Mass as music that “makes you glad to be alive”. It would be foolish to place Roth alongside Haydn – though I hope to be back in a couple of hundred years to reassess the situation. Nor can one detect any direct Haydn influence. That would be strange. But there is no doubt that Alec Roth’s music, both in this work and in others, whilst refusing to duck the thornier issues that confront us, seems calculated to make us glad to be alive. What more can we ask of art in the 21st century?

William Hedley

Previous review: John Quinn  (Recording of the Month)



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