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Birmingham première recalls 1914

10 October 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears Paul Spicer's new full-length oratorio


PAUL SPICER's Easter Oratorio was one of the most memorable and laudable among the first choral works of the new millennium, when it received its riveting première in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

An impeccable craftsman, Spicer has produced other works of substance since then, some with a similar paschal emphasis, but none so hefty, cogent, and rich in meaning as Unfinished Remembering, a new full-length "Choral Symphony" written as the composer's centenary tribute to the Fallen of the First World War. It had its première alongside the performance of another Great War tribute, Dona Nobis Pacem, by Vaughan Williams, whohad served on the front line in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The orchestra, a fusion of the increasingly refined Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan, and the Birmingham Ensemble, whether ad hoc or established, deserved surpassing praise for the way it responded - in both works - not just to Spicer's nursing beat and hugely appealing sense of shifting dynamics, but to the demands of the space: this is, after all, one of the great concert halls of the world, designed to make you hear a pin drop, and where every note - or every lapse - tells.

There was none of the latter in this almost 60-strong ensemble: even the silences were telling (as at Walt Whitman's "For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead" in the VW: the spirit of reconciliation, a quarter of a century before Britten's War Requiem).

I marvelled at mesmerising woodwind over low strings, at the baritone William Dazeley's whispering words "The waters ruffle as the men pass over." Dazeley, an expressive opera as well as oratorio singer, was a superb choice for both works: this had the quality of Britten's haunting music for Lucretia - nervy creakings that suggest some mysterious ill in the air - while the mostly lucid chorus reiterated Saul's lament "O Absalom, my love Absalom . . .", almost as if it were David lamenting over Jonathan.

This intense dialogue was one of the most affecting parts of the poet Euan Tait's musing, quizzical, and occasionally puzzling text, in a way seeking answers but not receiving them - in the way Whitman himself does: Tait's verse thus created something of a continuity.

In some stronger sequences, it is rewardingly akin to Owen. But the almost Mallarmé- or Apollinaire-like obscurity of some passages could jeopardise the appeal of the work, which would be a pity: cathedral choruses should seek inspection copies.

There is no doubting the musical impact of this work. Here we were involved: the poised, Lutoslawski-like chromatics of "The soldiers come back"; or the soprano-baritone duet with its rewarding echoes of A Child of Our Time, Tippett being a composer Spicer is much drawn to. Perhaps, in a way, Tait's libretto, and its format, shares something with the Tippett work. The music I would most like to compare Unfinished Remembering to is Hindemith's, or indeed Roger Sessions's, setting of Whitman When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom'd. Someone should pro­gramme those two 45-minute works together some time. Sadly, no one ever seems to perform either.

There was much more: a wonderful clarinet solo over pizzi­cato strings, with the soprano Johane Ansell at her purest (her sound perhaps a little thickened in the VW) in the kind of pietà stanzas that arise from an unusually conceived Dies Irae; and the trum­pet solo that concludes.

Dazeley was magnificent in catching the qui-vive feeling of the "Recordare", the choir veering into a hymnic German counterpoint, and Spicer's treatment ("In the deep of our beings God has set a pavilion for hope. . . God's light dances around and within us") paradoxically increasingly operatic, with Messiaen-like chords thrown in.

By the Libera Me, we sense Spicer's magnificent achievement for what it is: a kind ofPsalmus Hungaricus- a plea, such as Kodály composed, for release from a people's anguished past and present. Spicer took this potential scherzo too slowly for my liking: these final stages - still plenty of words - had a certain longueur: and we should have been spared the queasily pious "That our lives will be a dance with the holiness of linked Qur'an and Bible hands in the city of the spirit's freedom".

"The silence of ranked crosses, singing" reveals the poetry, and the metric finesse, of much of Euan Tait's meticulously worked or overworked script; but, by the end, in the words of the impressive Birmingham Bach Choir (plus Consort), I agreed: "It is enough."


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