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Timothy HAMILTON (b 1973)
Requiem (2012)
Ilona Domnich (soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
David Stout (baritone)
Ian Tindale (organ)
Rosenau Sinfonia/Timothy Hamilton
rec. 2015, St Jude-on-the-Hill Church, London
Texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.573849 [63:08]

What IS a Requiem? What is it for? To celebrate, to comfort, to mark? To remember? Is it reasonable for a Requiem to provoke? At moments of personal, national or global loss, what do we need a Requiem to do? Provide an outlet for tears, a balm for our emptiness, enable us to consider the mystery of death, immerse ourselves in the trappings of its rituals? Should it stir us, inspire us to some positive action? Might it attempt to depict the afterlife?

The last sixty years have thrown up some novel compositional solutions to these ambiguities, often personal rather than generic in essence. I suppose Britten started it, tinkering with a format and moulding it into his own, unique, response to ‘the pity of war’. His War Requiem continues to move so many of us, the personal amplified to become universal. Two more recent smaller scale ‘Requiems’ embody deeply subjective moments and states; both Oliver Knussen’s “Songs for Sue” (addressing the untimely loss of his irreplaceable wife) and Harrison Birtwistle’s astonishing “Moth Requiem” (textually concerning the demise of particular moth species, but doubtless implying a much broader remit) have touched me deeply; in each of these brief masterpieces the ‘less is more’ character moves and disarms simultaneously. We have different needs at different times: my response to a recent, utterly disorienting loss was to head straight for Boulez’s Rituel (in memoriam Maderna). Unusual you may think for the sudden passing of a cat, but we are what we are, and it certainly helped me at that moment.

The seed of Timothy Hamilton’s Requiem, as he explains in a note that’s a model of clarity, was sown during a chance encounter with a parishioner at the church, where one of his anthems was sung at a service which included the christening of his daughter. The individual concerned was interested in how Hamilton might respond to a larger scale venture, a work to be centred around war and remembrance. And so his Requiem was born. There is a lovely photograph of a poppy field at sunset on the cover of this disc, and it’s a pretty good indicator of how this work is likely to sound.

Words like ‘Requiem’ and images of poppies can be emotionally manipulative, powerfully so in combination. The first sound one hears on the disc is ‘The Last Post’ or a phrase very like ‘The Last Post’ played on the horn. So far, so Requiem. However this acts as a preamble for a technically accomplished setting of Isaac Watts’s ‘Give us the wings of faith to rise’ (many readers will be familiar with the Ernest Bullock anthem) and so this hour-long work begins, combining the traditional Latin text of the Requiem with one other aptly-chosen interloper, an Anglican chant setting of Psalm 91, known as ‘The Warrior’s Psalm’. Another novelty in this work is the conspicuous absence of the Dies Irae. In this regard I admire Hamilton’s courage in omitting the very segment of the liturgy which is most malleable in terms of the composer’s dramatic instincts, and which is most often used as a vehicle for pure effect.

On the flipside, central to this work is a sense of serenity and reflection which is pretty well omnipresent, and while it may certainly provide the balm, for me it creates a listening experience, which borders on the one-paced, and thus lacks the dramatic contrasts one might crave in a work of this scale. The ninth movement is called ‘Lest we forget’ – a purely orchestral segment, which acts as a kind of pivot for the work – it alludes to the earlier movements and is pleasant in its wistful English pastoral way. The presence of a side-drum to contribute a martial effect in the Libera me adds a tad of colour, but in the context of the whole work it is short-lived. I actually found the final bars of the work to be the most convincing. The piece just fades out in an honest, unshowy way. It’s most apt. And it does move.

One thing is for sure though, this Requiem gets a fabulous performance. All of the soloists shine but for me the stand-out is mezzo Jennifer Johnston, who makes a telling contribution to the quartet of soloists in the Benedictus and whose lovely voice beautifully complements that of the ever excellent tenor Nicky Spence in the Agnus Dei. For what is essentially an ad hoc ensemble neither the Cantoribus choir nor the Rosenau Sinfonia flag despite their extensive workload in a longish piece. At times I found the excess of vibrato in the choir slightly jarring but the recording is truthful and the ambience of St-Jude-on-the-Hill sympathetic throughout. The composer leads a performance which certainly underlines the coherent structure of the work.

Any limitations I have cited in this review of course relate to my personal, specific response; and perhaps that draws us back to the questions I posed at the outset. It’s ultimately about the disparity between the personal and the universal, or to put it another way, the synchronicity between the goal of the messenger, the pertinence of the message and the momentary state of the recipient. I believe this Requiem has sold well, enjoyed good reviews and moved a good number of listeners. It seems to be an honest, thoughtful creation and Hamilton clearly has abundant technical skill, good taste and tact, an ear for a melody and a beating heart. Ultimately therefore I feel sure this piece will move some listeners more powerfully than it did me.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Jim Westhead (Recording of the Month)



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