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Melodious enough for an angel

16 May 2012

by Roderic Dunnett

LIKE his brother Gavin, who is both one of Britain’s most vital baritone soloists and a conductor of note, Cornish-born Paul Carr is a mu­sician of impressive versatil­ity. His Requiem for an Angel has just been heard in the Albert Hall, Notting­ham, given a performance of mag­nificent inten­sity and striking beauty by the choir of Nottingham Trent University under Matthew Hopkins.

A large-scale work for two soloists, chorus, and orchestra, originally commissioned by the Athenaeum Choir of Warminster, Wiltshire, the Requiem coincided with, or narrowly antedated, the death of the com­poser’s mother, the soprano Una Hale. It is a work that largely — if not wholly — eschews violence. “I wished”, Carr says, “to avoid the ‘ter­rors’ of the Last Judgement, pre­ferring this work (like Fauré’s) to be seen as one of love and compassion for those who have died, and perhaps more importantly, for those of us left behind.”

The substantial eight-movement work is carefully mapped out, as if in chiasmus form, framed by the opening Requiem Aeternam and concluding Lux Aeterna, while the Sanctus — a sprightly effort with antiphonal effects, bongo drums (shades of the African Missa Luba), some striking bass leads, and first-rate top sopranos in the Osannas — and unexpectedly dramatic Agnus Dei, where the two soloists lent a thrilling sheen evocative of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, form a centre­piece.

Unexpectedly, Carr’s exquisite (perhaps too Fauré-indebted?) Pie Jesu, with soprano and harp and then gentle low brass, is placed second — matched unexpectedly by Kyries in the penultimate section; but here the Pie Jesu is followed by the first of two short passages by the poet Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for Death He kindly stopped for me. . .” Here, the soprano voice (Catrin Aur), riding over the ani­mated chorus, provided one of the most bracing, involving moments of this often alluring work.

Placed third and sixth are two longer settings of poetry. The first, introduced by a melting clarinet solo over rich lower strings (clarinets and flutes excelled all evening), is a passage from St Teresa of Avila, as graphic in A. W. Symons’s translation as the Song of Songs: “Let mine eyes see Thee, sweet Jesus of Nazareth. . .”. This was lullingly beautiful, thanks to some sensitive and poised singing by the entire chorus (“Roses and Jessamine: seeing thy face most fair”).

The second is a love poem by the octogenarian American poet Jack Larson, “Do I love you more than a day?”, which elicited interesting and unexpected harmonies, and (abetted by what sounded to me like a saxo­phone in the textures) a slow, jazz-like beat hovering somewhere be­tween Bern­stein and Samuel Barber.

Another short piece of Dickinson supplements the Agnus Dei (“The World feels dusty when We stop to die”); and a glowing state­ment of verse one of Psalm 133 in the Hebrew original adds rapture to the Lux Aeterna and final Requiem Aeter­nam, where the opening music returns triumphantly, even ob­ses­sively.

The composer expressed the hope that the music did not take on a sentimental streak. How far he has succeeded in this melodious under­taking is perhaps a matter of debate. But there are many moments of genuine beauty, and the delicacy with which he handles the choir and alternates between soloists show the mark of a musician of vast sensi­tivity. It is inconceivable that Requiem for an Angel — lyrical, ap­proachable, tuneful — would not bring pleasure and delight to many a proficient choral society and its audiences.

The feisty Haydn Te Deum that rounded off the concert merely con­firmed this young Nottingham choir’s gutsiness and flair.

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