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Advent without cant, and carols in no man’s land

05 January 2010

Roderic Dunnett hears two oratorios first performed last month


WORKS by two composers deeply grounded in cathedral music pro­vided two of the most satisfying premières of last year during its closing weeks.

Paul Spicer’s impressive new hour-long Advent Oratorio, heard in Lichfield Cathedral, set a well-chosen, subtly inflected scriptural Advent text by the Bishop of Dur­ham, Dr Tom Wright. In Jonathan Rathbone’s Christmas Truce (for baritone, doubling as narrator; choir, and chamber orchestra), the cessation of Christmas hostilities in December 1914 on the Western Front was brought poignantly to life, using a compact libretto by Graeme Curry, which incorporates lines by the poet Edward Thomas, killed near Arras on Easter Monday 1917.

The career of Paul Spicer, a former chorister of New College, Oxford, has embraced teaching, choral con­ducting, BBC radio production, bio­graphies (of Herbert Howells and George Dyson), and chairmanship of the Gerald Finzi Society. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Eng­lish composers, and has revealed himself as also a composer of for­midable authority and power.

His oeuvre includes, as well as songs, anthems, organ pieces, and woodwind solos, a wonderful Easter Oratorio (also with a text by Bishop Wright), which deserves to form part of every choral society’s reper­toire; and The Deciduous Cross — pungent choral settings, with some electrifying writing for wind and brass ensemble, of the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas.

Jonathan Rathbone was a chorister under David Lepine at Coventry Cathedral. After holding a choral scholarship at Christ’s College, Cam­bridge, he made his name as music director of the Swingle Singers. He is widely known as an instrumental arranger of zest and flair, unafraid to tease out new ideas while adroitly paying homage to the more predic­table elements of a crossover genre that he has comfortably made his own.

Rathbone’s recent much-published music includes a string quartet that boasts the engaging quasi-biblical title More Fools than Wise. Embracing larger forms, he has treated with skill writings by, for instance, Oscar Wilde (The Ballad of Reading Gaol).

In the yet more persuasive Christ­mas Truce, he melds orchestral accompaniments with serene spoken passages. His admirable narrator was the baritone and actor Mark Williams. With a hinterland of Con­tinental composers — as mining seams of sumptuous Zemlinsky or Korngold — Rathbone has an at­tractive and, among English sacred musicians, unusual musical sensibil­ity.

The drawback of both new works lay in their tendency to break off a tersely argued and relevant narra-tive to mollify (and doubtless delight) a largely congregational audience with uplifting hymns and chunks of the Prayer Book or psalms. Bach and Telemann can obviously be cited as precedents: and yet this yen for the known musically diminishes many a fine and cogent oratorio by 20th-century English Kapellmeisters.

In Christmas Truce, the device seems slightly more justified; for the carols that Rathbone interposes, including “Stille Nacht” (in parallel English and German, the latter far more tentative in this 60th-anniver­sary celebration by the London Forest Choir, under the composer’s secure baton), together with the 23rd Psalm, contrapuntally if some­what saccharinely set, did indeed figure during the 1914 celebrations in no man’s land.

Yet this was a missed opportunity to exercise composer’s licence. Alongside “Downhill I came, hungry, and not yet starved, Cold, yet had heat within me . . . . proof Against the North Wind” or “One of the lads in the detail was hit. Just hadn’t been on the front line long enough,” which catch the hopelessness of that vast, but almost mystically intimate, con­flict, it would have been better to set one of the quasi-hymns of Sassoon, Graves, or either Thomas.

Both Spicer’s and Rathbone’s achievement is to have produced a weighty but approachable extended work, free of cant, that might easily replace or sit alongside, for example, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols, to make for a less syrupy concert than is often to be heard in Advent.

The musical weight and intellec­tual vigour of Advent Oratorio, vitally conducted through its several slick, fiery scherzi by the organist of Lichfield Cathedral, Philip Scriven, was immensely satisfying — although it took half the work for him to prise sentience from the boy choristers, who unexpectedly blos­somed in the tenth movement, and later again as angels. The oratorio gave me hope that this “retro” approach to post-Elgar large-scale English choral works need not result in some­thing limp, sentimental, or predic­table.

Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir (also celebrating an anniversary, its 50th) delivered its part handsomely — eyes were up, unlike the Forest Choir’s. Firm and evocative instrum­ental writing showed to advantage the maturity and artistry of Spicer’s writing. The main soloists (three, as in Easter Oratorio), all adroit artists — the Baroque specialist Natalie Clifton-Griffith, the usually lithe but here rather too unbending tenor Ed Lyon, and, the best of the three, the baritone William Berger — enticed, although rarely quite shone.

Shining was reserved for a resplen­dent Voice of God, intoned from on high in the west end by the baritone Philip Lancaster, a member of the cathedral choir; and for the almost effortless-sounding, fluent counter­tenor Philip Jones, who, in the first part of Handel’s Messiah, which formed the evening’s fractionally lopsided second half, knocked spots off them all.



For Jonathan Rathbone’s works, see www.editionpeters.com.

For Jonathan Rathbone’s works, see www.editionpeters.com.

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