Nine days of the serious stuff

by
26 May 2009

by Roderic Dunnett

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THE London Festival of Contem­porary Church Music, based at St Pancras Church, has filled a huge gap in the church-music calendar.  In effect (as its Norwich equivalent used to be), the festival is a compact, nine-day showcase of what is happening in the field of serious composing for the Anglican liturgy.

As well as organ recitals and con­certs, a cluster of services reaching out to St Paul’s, Southwark, West­minster Abbey, and the Chapel Royal offered ample scope for celebrating three 70th birthdays — those of Jonathan Harvey, who is 70 this month, Andrew Carter, and John McCabe — and for including a wide array of modern music for the liturgy.

Masses by Harvey and Gabriel Jackson; canticles by Carter, Deirdre Gribbin, Robin Walker, Grayston Ives, Andrew Gant, and Giles Swayne; a clutch of new, or newish, Responses; an organ première from Patrick Hawes; and a musical com­pôte comprising mainly anthems and motets — some of which were specially com­missioned this year or previously — from Roxanna Panufnik, Jonathan Dove, Cecilia McDowall, Paul Stanhope, Andrew McBirnie, Sasha Johnson Manning, Huw Morgan, Paul Ayres, and Francis Pott.

Michael Finnissy is an old hand at this, having composed, as he re­called, numerous anthems for local church use, consciously eschewing what he sees as the tawdry populism of some of the church music of his youth, which sounded “like a 1950s Eurovision song contest”.

Finnissy first approached setting the Mystery Plays some 30 years ago. His enthusiasm was taken up by a school in Solihull, “looking for some kind of successor to Noyes Fludde” (1958). The striking result is Man­kind, based on scenes from a play dating back to c.1465, from which much lively and obscene badinage has (sadly) been trimmed, but which still makes for a good old musical morality play, featuring a set-piece combat for Man’s soul (a spoken role) between Mercy — a rather well-drawn allegorical character — and the Devil (soprano, intriguingly), plus a lively gaggle of her (child’s voice) acolytes.

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What impresses is the way Finnissy turns his “migrations of musical style”, as he calls them, and quasi-improvisatory yet disciplined approach to serve, effectively, a Pilgrim’s Progress-like medieval text and story. Originally (of necessity) performed with a string trio, here it benefited immensely from the subtle colourings that his writing elicited from bassoon, clarinet, and oboe d’amore, with organ and piano strik­ingly contrasted at different points within the textures.

Finnissy has a gift for recasting or revisiting pre-Renaissance music. While the story has the appeal of Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Pro­gress, the medieval period — regal-like organ, one gorgeous quasi-15th-century carol — hovers beneath the score.

So does Stravinsky, whose in­fluence can be detected in some effective thrumming for the girls’ chorus, some of the accompaniment to Mercy’s lithe recitative (baritone Jonathan Saunders, rather good), one passage of Stravinsky in Bach vein (Von Himmel hoch), patches of gentle or more overt disson- ance, or sly syncopations for the trio of laddish tempters, Nowadays, Now­face, and Nothing (Sammy Matthew­son, Charles Morris, and Jonathan Spencer-Todd). These were increas­ingly well-sung, and their words — as they grew more courageous and assured — proved among the best.

Finnissy resolves the difficult, Singspiel-like problem of making the spoken word (David Henson’s hapless but admirably delivered Mankind) and sundry musical layers interleave. Mankind didn’t quite set the house on fire, but with Finchley Children’s Music Group, which is positively flourishing under Grace Rossiter’s exceptionally effi­cient and well-articulated musical direction, it emerged as something of a hit.

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