Christopher WOOD (b.1945)
Rebecca Bottone (soprano)
Clare McCaldin (alto)
Ed Lyon (tenor)
Nicholas Garrett (bass)
L’Inviti Sinfonia and Singers/Paul Brough
rec. 2012, St. John’s Smith Square, London
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100068 [60.55]
The first thing that you realise, not only by reading Warwick Thompson’s detailed if slightly sycophantic booklets but also by listening to this work, especially the final climactic movement, the ‘Libera Me’, is that Christopher Wood is a devout Christian and writes this Requiem from a strongly attained ‘post-resurrectionist’ standpoint. Perhaps, you might say all composers do something similar but in Wood’s case his Requiem is always positive, always aiming at an uplifting beauty and always sure of itself and its direction.
So, you say, this reviewer is a fan, - a convert, this review is not going to be unbiased. Well not really, but I have started with an overall view of the piece which I’m sure the composer would concur with. But who is Christopher Wood and how did the piece come to be written, it is truly an extraordinary story.
Wood does not describe himself as a composer; he is primarily, by training and passion, a medical man, and one of some repute and success. In a sense he falls into the shoes of Borodin who was principally a chemist and they both share a powerful ability to write long, lyrical melodies, note especially the opening of the Agnus dei for the soprano and tenor soloists.
Christopher Wood became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and a consultant at the Hammersmith Hospital where he led the breast and colon cancer clinics. In the 1980’s he helped to develop a new drug in a start-up Biotechnology Company and moved into the pharmaceutical industry and amongst his achievements was a breakthrough drug for children with leukaemia. But music was in his blood, growing up singing in Wales at his local church and with a mother who sang in the chorus of Welsh National Opera.
It was whilst seeing Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 where, he felt there was a genuine and heart felt sense of National mourning, that he asked himself what if these people who are filing past the coffin were a choir, what would they be singing?. The idea of this Requiem then came to him and he quietly worked on it for his own pleasure and interest, sometimes after a long, gruelling working day, for the next six years.
It was through a chance meeting with event manager David Guest and an introduction to the eventual orchestrator Jonathan Rathbone that the idea of putting this Requiem on came to fruition, the sort of luck a composer needs. Paul Brough guest conductor of the BBC Singers was brought on board and the first performance took place in December 2012 the recording being made on the same day.
Wood has divided the work into ten sections each separately tracked but some sections may contain a longer text sequence. For example the fifth movement begins with the ‘Confutatis’ and includes the ‘Lacrimosa’ and the ‘Pie Jesu’. The emphasis throughout is on Peace and Beauty and even in the ‘Dies Irae’ and the composer admits that this section is not loud and stormy (like the Verdi.) He writes ”…….I felt that on the Day of Judgement I’m not going to be shouting, I’m going to be quaking in my boots. So there’s a quiet, shocked gasp in the middle of the Dies Irae” otherwise it is quite reflective.
This has led overall to a lack of dramatic contrast between the sections and a sameness of harmony and style with a strong reliance on sequential writing. Certainly there are climaxes and passionate outbursts but the language is couched somewhere between Beethoven and Verdi moving towards a sort of ‘Songs of Praise’ sugary quality. The rhythms tend to be rather foursquare and predictable. The orchestration by the versatile Jonathan Rathbone does , as the composer admits, turn the work from “a pig's ear into a silk purse”. The use of brass in the Sanctus is most apt and noble , even Handellian, these fanfare ideas are also used in other movements.
But this is not to denigrate the performers. The soloists, whose names are not that well known are extremely convincing with young fresh voices and the L’Inviti Singers are superbly balanced with clear diction and a full-bodied tone quality. The recording needs a little enhancement from one’s amplifier but is well balanced. Although recorded in 2012 the disc has only recently (2017) been released.
It is quite likely, as the work has received a number of performances, that it would have a distinct appeal to amateur choral societies who are looking for something modern which “won’t scare the horses” and its quite likely that it will be found to be a fulfilling experience. For myself, as listener and reviewer I can’t find much in the work that is striking and makes me want to listen to it again.