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
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
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
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