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Alex WOOLF (b. 1995)
Requiem (2018) [55:46]
Nicky Spence (tenor), Philip Higham (cello), Iain Burnside (piano), Anthony Gray (organ)
Vox Luna/Alex Woolf
rec. 24-26 November 2019, Church of St. John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London DELPHIAN DCD34240 [55:46]
Alex Woolf studied with a number of distinguished teachers at St. John’s College, Cambridge and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He is a busy composer with several awards and many performances and commissions to his credit. He is an active broadcaster, as well as the conductor of Vox Luna, the choir he founded in 2018 and which sings on this disc. Amid all this he also finds time for benevolent work, having launched a campaign in aid of Shelter, a charity that offers support to homeless people.
At fifty-five minutes, this Requiem is a large-scale work that Woolf seems to have composed simply because he wanted to rather than in response to a commission. The texts have clearly inspired him to give of his best. On his website, the composer writes that this piece ‘means a lot to me’.
Woolf has selected passages from the liturgy as well as three passages of secular text. He chose three poems by Gillian Clarke, the distinguished Welsh writer (b. 1937). My commentary on the poems should be read in the knowledge that I have sadly little familiarity with or experience of the author’s work. None the less, I suggest that the first poem seeks to create a religious allegory out of the spectacle of people falling from the windows of the Free Trade Centre in September 2001. The second is a brief and personal statement on loss and grief, whereas the third, an apparent reference to climate change notwithstanding, deals in hope and renewal. These three songs are taken by the tenor soloist, whereas the liturgical texts are sung by the choir. This differentiation is presumably what justifies the booklet reference to Britten’s War Requiem, otherwise rather pointless in my view, given that so many composers – John Rutter amongst them – have followed Britten’s lead since 1963 in combining liturgical and secular texts.
The choral movements are accompanied by the organ, with an important part for solo cello. The Clarke settings are accompanied on the piano, though cello and organ also have a role to play in certain passages.
The booklet carries a note on the work by the composer and an essay on the requiem tradition by Wolfgang Marx. Both are very useful, and I’m pleased to note that Woolf is one of those rare composers who are able to describe their own music in terms that mean something to the ordinary listener. Thus he writes that the work ‘begins in darkness, gradually coming into focus through the cello’s opening solo and in the choral entries which follow.’ These choral entries establish that the work is written in a firm, tonal idiom with frequent use of diatonic dissonance such as we hear in much contemporary choral music. This is particularly noticeable in the unaccompanied Pie Jesu, though here the composer introduces an unexpected element that he calls ‘intense, rhythmically free declamation’, where the women’s voices over slow-moving chords in the lower voices create a particularly striking aural image. The choral writing throughout is very fine, and beautifully sung by the sixteen or so voices of Vox Luna. There is some particularly adept part-writing in the Offertory, rising to satisfying radiance at ‘Quam olim Abrahae’, and very attractive use of solo voices – extremely well taken by members of the choir – toward the end of the Sanctus.
Woolf chooses not to set the Dies Irae, leaving any notion of the Day of Wrath to the tenor soloist. The first song, ‘The Fall’, follows a harsh and bitter cello introduction, and the passage beginning ‘Too far to hear their screams’ provokes the composer to the most violent music of the entire work. The three songs are declaimed in a sort of free arioso, and after several re-hearings I struggle to discern much distinction in the melodic line. The three songs seem to inhabit pretty much the same musical world, and given that the rest of the work is contemplative and slow-moving I think an opportunity for variety was rather lost here. The third song, though, does offer a little hope, and leads neatly into the two choral movements that close the work in peace and solace.
The performance of the work, under the conductor’s direction, is a deeply committed one. Nicky Spence, Iain Burnside, Philip Higham and Anthony Gray all contribute to this, and I’m sure the composer is thrilled with the result. The recording is very fine, with considerable feel for the building. I would have preferred to have the cello, tenor and piano rather less forward in the sound picture, but this is perhaps what the composer wanted. Sung texts are provided in the booklet, along with the two essays previously mentioned and artist biographies.