FEW choirs in the land cannot have sung a work by the Welsh-born composer Sir Karl Jenkins, whose cantata Dewi Sant (St David) has just received its English première in Birmingham.
His oratorio The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (whose famous Benedictus was included in this concert) has received some 1500 performances since the Millennium. His Stabat Mater, Requiem, Te Deum, and Gloria are similarly well-represented.
After an almost mystical encounter two decades ago with a modern artwork in St Mark’s Square, Venice, Jenkins boldly chose to set aside an award-winning composing career in film and advertising and return to his classical roots, striving, he says, to seek out “influences, text, instrumentation, and inspiration from other cultures”. His acclaimed work Adiemus (Songs of Sanctuary), which exemplified these heterogeneous qualities, set in motion his new career.
Jenkins’s subsequent work The Peacemakers (lately revived by the Cheltenham Choral Society) embraces words by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa, but also words from the Qur’an and additional new texts by Terry Waite. A cantata, Luke the Healer, encapsulates Jenkins’s view of the achievement of St Luke. Meanwhile, his treatment of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen”, honouring the British fallen of the Great War, confirms (as The Armed Man does) his deep yearning for world peace.
Although just 30 minutes long, Dewi Sant is a massive, uplifting work. It was accompanied here by a dazzling array of brass and percussion which helped to give the work its exciting continuous thrust and flow.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Welsh-language fragments that Jenkins incorporates in this work: “Byddwch lawen” (“Be joyful”), “Cadwch y ffydd” (“Keep the Faith”), and “Gwnewch y pethau bychain” (“Do the little things”) are modest compared with three Latin psalm settings (22, 27, and 150). They look brief, but are strongly, extendedly, and vividly set.
The first (in this reduced but expertly cast brass arrangement: the full work was originally designed for orchestra) involves explosive brass, with vivid writing for bass trombone, and dramatic huge tom-toms offsetting tinkling percussion. The second is likewise vigorous, with upward slides in the brass, well-chosen reiterations of music and text alike, and some beautifully enraptured writing for the choir.
In the third, the voices danced, lightly and alluringly syncopated, and the conductor, James Llewelyn Jones, elicited and maintained a mesmerising full-choir mezzo-forte, which was egged on by talkative side drum and tambourine. Each made a marked impact. Indeed, Jenkins’s captivating writing, here and elsewhere, is as electrifying as, say, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
The soft drumming start to the sombre Psalm 22, and pattering rhythms, lead on to a lugubrious passage: “. . . in pulverum mortis deduxisti me” (“Thou hast led me into the dust of death”). A few minor errors in the programme’s Latin were less important than the omission of English translations for this most darkly expressive of psalms (verses 12 to 21 only are used).
The most exciting moment here is where Jenkins unexpectedly opens up the choral singing like a blazing light (at “Eripe a gladio animam meam”), with decorative brass — a thrilling moment. “Salve me ex ore leonis” (“save me from the lion’s mouth”) is oft repeated: a haunting, well-judged effect, just as some shifting chords produce a simple and telling moment of beauty distinct from anything heard before.
In Psalm 27, Jenkins’s offsetting of upper and lower voices is likewise enchanting. The repetitions of “Hoc requiram” (“this shall I ask of the Lord”), nursed by some mysterious tinkling and bell-like percussion, make a beautifully sung preface to an entrancing violin solo (Jody Smith), then horn solo which enhance the central passage. Psalm 150 launches with a “mass shout” from the choir, followed by a cluster of fortissimo repetitions of “laudate”. The choir beat their copies — a most unusual effect — and the range of percussion (especially vibrant tom-toms and side drum) is as exciting as one would expect from this joyous and celebratory psalm.
But still to mention is the one remaining passage that directly addresses St David or, in Welsh, Dewi Sant. “Goodnight, kindness of Dewi, goodnight, his place of refuge . . . A house for our people not made by human hands.”
Though curiously selective, it yields one of Jenkins’s most moving moments. The choir sings almost a cappella, with just the faintest touch of hushed instruments. There are soft lines of counterpoint for the voices and unexpected shifting chromatic harmonies; and then, in a final outburst, Jenkins twists all forces into diatonic harmony, a moment of purity that is a quite remarkable effect.
Dewi Sant is a work rich in variety, strongly conceived, and deeply passionate. Three choirs — the Birmingham Canoldir Male Choir, the Midlands Hospitals’ Choir, and the Phoenix Singers — brought a similar vigour in Symphony Hall to other parts of this mixed programme, including electrifying Halleluia choruses from Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives and Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus; the Swedish hymn “How great thou art”, championed by Aled Jones on Songs of Praise and famously by George Beverly Shea at the Billy Graham rallies; and a modern setting of the Jewish peace greeting “Oseh shalom bimromav”.