ALEC ROTH has been the choir Ex Cathedra’s adopted composer for some ten years. His contributions to its repertoire have been numerous and worth while: sometimes shorter pieces adapted well to the choir’s needs, sometimes more extensive, such as his 40-part motet Earthrise.
The thrust of his newest work, A Time to be Born and a Time to Die (after Ecclesiastes 3: “To everything there is a season. . .”), given its world première at the University of Birmingham’s Bramall Concert Hall, is to a degree both religious — Christmas and Easter — and humanist, recalling, perhaps, Roth’s close collaborations with the Indian-born writer Vikram Seth.
Commissioning new work may sometimes be a gamble, but a familiarity between composer and ensemble, as here in Roth’s close relationship with Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra, is always an advantage. This new cantata excelled in many respects: in its design and conception; in its contrasting moods and tempi; in its subtle colourings; and in its beautifully judged writing for choir and soloists. Avoiding the obvious, Roth cherishes the naïve and intimate in exploring, and polishing, his chosen texts.
One might have harboured doubts about the last. Can one weave a truly coherent whole from such sources as Blake, Traherne, Yeats, Kipling, the doomed young aristocrat Chidiock Tichborne, Longfellow, and more?
Tichborne, writing the night before his execution, adjusting to the finite — or infinite? — offers a clue; for Roth has created not a patchwork, but an enticing floral eiderdown, rich in imagery and in musical finery (Bach is a great inspiration) which transits from the innocence of birth to an embracing of imminent death (“My glass is full, and now my glass is run, And now I live, and now my life is done”).
Kipling’s double-edged “A birth and a death” (reflecting love for his feared-dead soldier offspring) makes the link between lines that evoke the certainty of death or parallel the nativity story. This launches out with “Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors! Launch on the living world, and spring to light!”, and — a surprise, perhaps — Thom Gunn’s “Baby Song” (“Why don’t they simply put me back Where it is warm and wet and black?”).
The former lines (Anna Laetitia Barbauld), set for solo bass (Greg Skidmore), are lithe, elegant, and expressive. Gunn’s (as usual, rhyming) poem, pleading and emotional, with fabulously crafted double-bass solo, was exquisitely delivered by the sensitive, gorgeously voiced tenor Samuel Boden.
The alto soloist, Martha McLorinan, with a richly glowing tone, had a touching Aztec cradle song — a moving interpolation; and nurtured finely the lilting setting of a tragic mini-ballad by Mary Coleridge.
Enchanting hints of bassoon and flute tinge the Traherne verses, sung by the soprano Katie Trethewey. Much of this rewarding work has an almost magical delicacy: time and again, Roth enhances rather than diminishes his poets. Skilled word-painting is an art at which Britten excelled (occasionally you sense a distant echo); and it is crucial here.
There is Tippett, too, in the mix; for Yeats’s “Cradle Song” enfolds patterns that have the flavour of blues or spirituals. Yet nothing is overdone. It is the spareness of the writing (including, here, period strings) which gives Roth’s work its innocent and intimate atmosphere. He succeeds in adjusting styles — the Kipling vision of Mary Magdalene comes close to opera — while maintaining a persuasively coherent whole. Walt Whitman’s “To one shortly to die”, with some scintillating a cappella singing, feels, paradoxically, like a lullaby.
Entrancingly introduced by rippling viola, the choral setting of Longfellow revisits the spiritual or blues. The gently symbolic text bespeaks resignation (“the hostler calls. . . The day returns but nevermore returns the traveller, to the shore. . .”). The endless cycle of life completes its transition, and concludes: the promise of the title has indeed been fulfilled.