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Music review: From Darkness to Light, sung by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta

21 September 2018

Roderic Dunnett hears a contemporary cantata


CHRISTOPHER DOWIE is a gifted musician and composer who, having founded the Wimborne Choral Society in Dorset in the 1970s, conducted it for almost four decades. He is also Assistant Chorus Master and accompanist to the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, the most proficient such ensemble in south-west England.

Dowie’s animated leadership, with its feeling of fun, shines through his work. The Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir, here 22-strong, joined with the very acceptable Wimborne forces, nigh on 100 voices, to revive his ten-movement cantata From Darkness to Light, in Wimborne Minster, for which it was composed.

Dowie maps his material carefully, and has no mean sense of what works musically. This piece has a palpable intensity, and a sense of emotional and musical growth.

Prefaced by a striking orchestral introduction, questing and mystical, there comes a Basque carol (“Bethlehem! Heavn’s fair rose, its bud embow’ring”), gently antiphonal, with a feel of Britten’s Flower Songs or Hymn to St Cecilia.

An allusion to “Anguish” launches the “darker” side evoked in the cantata’s title, exploring the Lamentation of Jeremiah. “How doth the city sit solitary . . . ”, a passage famously set by Edward Bairstow, is here intoned movingly by distant soprano voices (Dowie stipulates two choirs, the main group static, the other moving about).

The fire, desolation, and sickness, heralded by low strings, are underlined by a massive brass surge, yielding to horn, bassoon, and oboe. The distant sopranos reappear at “Lux aeterna”, a plainsong-like monody, prefacing the men’s resurfacing at “Requiem aeternam”. A single bell generates a mournful effect; what sound like echoing cowbells effect a doomladen conclusion.

There is more gloom. After a yearning passage for solo soprano (Faye Eldret, lucid and affecting), in which Dowie deploys a daring vocal line, almost operatic, we embark, aptly, on Psalm 22 (“My God, my God . . . why hast thou forsaken me?”). Prefaced by a wan interlude, monastic-sounding handbells and organ ensure that this is one of the work’s most intense and musically interesting sections. Anglican chant and men’s plainsong also play a part.

The next interlude (featuring an obbligato clarinet and strings), with an ensuing passage depicting Christ in the manger (its atmospheric text by the Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell, c.1561-95), begins the emotional transition from despair. The preceding soprano solo, Psalm 121, reminded me of Britten’s early Rimbaud cycle Les Illuminations. The organ (Sam Hanson) shines in a treatment of “O lux beata Trinitas”. A hint of a scherzo (“Te deprecamur vespere”) has the orchestra dancing, not surprisingly, into “Let all the world in every corner sing”, a choral hymn that culminates in the doxology as the audience, too, joins in.

T. S. Eliot’s words “O Light invisible! . . . Spring always new forms of life . . . the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation”, excised from “The Rock” and “Out of the formless stone”, were memorably shared between speakers, Hugh Sutton and Pauline Dowie. The following prayer, “Man is joined spirit and body. . . Visible and invisible must meet in his Temple”, brings forth rocking major thirds, shared between choir sopranos and altos, the men joining. The effect is ethereal. Hope has been arrived at out of darkness; light finally prevails.

Dowie’s work, mixed in style, but attractively so, is probing, well-contrasted, and cogent. It was also admirably sung.

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