Masters of counterpoint inthe English tradition
Posted: 24 Jan 2007 @ 00:00
WORKS by two outstanding composers of church music have yielded two richly rewarding recordings in recent months.
Paul Spicer’s Easter Oratorio (BBC CD 006) is a masterpiece in the English choral tradition. An examination of the Apostles’ hesitant reaction to and delight in encountering the risen Christ, the work benefits from a wisely planned, beautifully worded libretto, devised by Dr Tom Wright, now the Bishop of Durham, when, in his previous post but one as Dean of Lichfield, he was a close neighbour of the composer.
Time and again, one is swept away by the sheer assurance and vitality of both the choral and the orchestral writing. Spicer has a gift for wrapping the music around words, and a feeling for the sensual beauty of sound which one associates with Gerald Finzi; at the same time, the powerful rapture of his cavorting and cartwheeling counterpoint suggests the unbridled enthusiasm of operatic Tippett, most notably The Midsummer Marriage.
The role of the tenor Evangelist (first performed by Andrew Kennedy) is sung here with a plangent tenderness and affecting articulation by Philip Salmon; another tenor, Nathan Vale, is the appealing soloist in the powerful Doubting Thomas sequence, and also sings Simon Peter. Spicer’s Birmingham Bach Choir rise handsomely to the challenge.
There is some vital writing for the Lichfield boys. Perhaps most affecting of all are the soprano arias sung by Rachel Nicholls, which lend a different, Baroque feel to both text and music. For me, the many incorporated chorales and hymns have a tendency to slow the action, and might better have been used more sparingly; but for many listeners they will be a high point.
Spicer’s unfailing invention and the sheer lovingness with which the whole work is conceived fill one with admiration.
The same kind of passionate commitment can be found in the music of Francis Pott, who began his musical career as a chorister of New College, Oxford, and later sang in the choir of Winchester Cathedral. “Meditations and Remembrances” (SIGCD 080) is an appropriate title for a recent Signum recording of his music, which follows on from the exciting performance by Jeremy Filsell of Pott’s large-scale organ piece Christus, also on Signum (SIGCD 062, double disc).
The title of the disc derives from two lovely extended settings of Traherne, A Meditation and A Remembrance. There is some bracing dramatic writing midway through the anthem “Turn our captivity” (Psalm 126), and all the pieces on this disc share with Pott’s compelling Mass in Five Parts an attractive gift for natural, easy-flowing, shrewdly engineered counterpoint, while embracing a warm harmonic range.
Most pleasing of all about this Signum disc is the unshowy and yet vastly proficient and thoughtfully balanced singing that Judy Martin draws from the choir of Christ Church, Dublin. An appealing soprano solo uplifts “Jesu, dulcis memoria” attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux. Pott’s handsomely varied Introduction, Toccata and Fugue for organ, played here by Tristan Russcher, may well encourage listeners to seek out Filsell’s powerful recording of Christus.