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Pulpit and peruke in Yorkshire

by
22 November 2013

Roderic Dunnett hears a tribute to the novelist and Church of England cleric Laurence Sterne

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THE keyboardist and composer, Radio 3 celebrity, polymath, and piano virtuoso David Owen Norris and the Georgian writer and cleric Laurence Sterne go well together: fond of everything 17th- and 18th-century, Norris sometimes, one feels, should don peruke and breeches to go about his business. His is the world of Hooke, or Locke, possibly of Voltaire. He is as culturally travelled as the author of the fictionalised travelogue A Sentimental Journey, or as any who made the Grand Tour.

Likewise, the consummate veteran actor David Bradley was perfectly cast as Sterne at York Minster in Norris's latest compositional foray, Voices from the Pulpit: Hezekiah and the Messengers - bizarre were it not so clever and daring, and centred on a complete declamation of Sterne's celebrated 1764 Paris sermon. The world première played to a packed Minster choir (News, 18 October).

Indeed, uplifted by a beautifully drilled, cohesive, quadripartite children's choir and resplendent tenor soloist (Mark Wilde), Voices from the Pulpit was bewitching.

Norris events are always different. With a racing mind, he can serve up a comic opera, a symphony, a haunting song cycle (Donne is his latest, Fame's Great Trumpet, recorded, again with the expressive Wilde, on EMR CD015); or a sacred cantata (Prayerbook: EMR CD007-8) as apparently effortlessly (although hard graft and much midnight oil are more often entailed) as he can toss off a Scarlatti sonata, or Bach's Forty-Eight; or deliver an analysis - the most inspiring I have heard - on BBC4 of Parry's Jerusalem, revealing in Parry the same probing brilliance that Norris himself shows in exposing the minutiae.

This was a great event, huge fun to be at. The Laurence Sterne Trust was there in force: its base, Shandy Hall (after Sterne's most celebrated novel, Tristram Shandy, 1759-67) is located in the Prebendary's final parish. Sterne himself, as Vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest and then Stillington, was a Prebendary of the Minster, and - having spent almost his entire working life during the 33-year reign of George II - settled in Coxwold, a Saxon-rooted community (Domesday Book: "Cucvalt") further north from York, near Ampleforth, in the shadow of the North Yorkshire Moors.

The sermon, preached at the British Embassy in Paris before the philosopher David Hume, no less, and the Earl (before the title Marquess was restored) of Hertford, at a "Concourse of all nations and religions" was the last that Sterne composed and delivered. It has plenty of fire and attack about it: not for nothing was Rabelais Sterne's favourite author, and there is something Rabelaisian as well as Swiftian to be prised from many of the diverse roles that Bradley himself brings masterfully to life on stage, whether at the RSC or the National: a sort of Jaques meets Justice Shallow.

But, while Bradley made light work and telling diction of some very heavy material, a ponderousness that John Donne might have cut through and John Aubrey sneered at, the musicians were doing great things. Quite splendid were the choirs, from Tadcaster, Carlton Miniott, near Thirsk, and Brafferton, by the River Swale: young children who had mastered every note, and whose acute memories stretched out to embrace vital rhythms, accuracy of attack, and impressively audible words.

The tenor solos included a Prayer (with viola da gamba), some passages with piano ("A lodging in the wilderness"), and others ("Imposture is all dissonance") that matched the energy of the choir - with, appropriately, the York String Quartet - in "The instrument of his punishment" or "Virtues and vices". The final tutti brought the wheel full circle: the gravestone that alludes, as the composer points out, to Sterne's "sound head, warm heart and breast humane".

Sterne's life was not easy: a constant struggle with stress, failure in other walks of life, domestic tensions, political wrangles, and success but also intermittent disappointment, and a quarter-century battle, finally lost, against tuberculosis. This richly associative, articulate tribute will, I hope, have made him chuckle.

David Owen Norris's Prayerbook and Fame's Great Trumpet can be obtained from www.em-records.com/purchase.html. His recordings for Dutton include the completion of Elgar's Piano Concerto (CDLX 7148) and the piano and chamber music of Sir George Dyson (CDLX 7137, www.duttonvocalion.co.uk); plus on Hyperion, the songs of Roger Quilter and Sir Arthur Somervell (CDA 66208, 66187, www.hyperion-records.co.uk).

www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk

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