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Music review: A Better World is Possible

10 March 2023

Roderic Dunnett hears a new choral work by Jonathan Rathbone


JONATHAN RATHBONE’s gift for crafting both large-scale choral works and exquisite miniatures has earned him widespread acclaim. He is a masterly arranger of music for (especially) full-bodied double choir, with or without accompaniment. His carol settings have earned an honoured place alongside John Rutter’s.

Such accomplishment, evident in his latest hour-long cantata, A Better World is Possible, given its first peformance at St Mary’s, Walthamstow, by the London Forest Choir, is perhaps unsurprising. From Coven­try Cathedral Choir, Rathbone progressed, via Cambridge and St Bride’s, Fleet Street, to directing the Swingle Singers. The range of styles at which he so patently excels flows naturally from this open-minded, non-judgemental background.

In several oratorios, a measure of deep pathos is evident: Requiem for the Condemned Man and The Ballad of Reading Gaol typify Rathbone’s ability to empathise with, and vividly highlight in music, the fate of the underdog. Christmas Truce is an evocation of agony — the Great War trenches — wrested into celebration.

Celebration was the order of the day on this occasion. More than 900 years old, Norman St Mary’s — where William Morris was baptised — has been undergoing a £3-million renovation. A Better World is Possible, rather than revisit historical events, focuses on the church’s place at the hub of its “creative community”, its task in countering an all too negative modern era and promoting hope, and its anticipation of a better world as envisaged in Revelation.

Three things shone out. First, the sheer quality, elocution, and meticulous preparation of the choir. Second was the thoughtful imagery deployed by Rathbone’s principal librettist, Eithne Cullen: “songs of liquid gold”; “a warning to toll / in the tower where the bells are still”; “the desert landscape is scorched before its time”. Excessive neighbourhood allusions can, sadly, render even a finely structured choral work less usable elsewhere. Yet their restrained deployment here — the River Lea, “The Stow”, “Vinegar Alley” (an allusion to the stanching of 17th-century plague pits) did add touches of local charm (or horror).

Of three hymns, Charlotte Elliott’s “Just as I am”, with supporting cello, enchanted. One looked longingly for Howells’s “All my hope on God is founded”; and yet Rathbone’s fresh alternative version acquired an appeal of its own. In the culminatory “Amazing Grace” — John Newton’s late-18th-century lines balancing Charles Wesley’s preceding “Come, sinners . . .” — the composer relaxes, enticingly, into his Swingle Singers natural element.

But it always seems to me that Rathbone is at his sparkling best when he takes risks. And, while the interwoven vocal lines proved no great imposition for forces of this stature, it was in his writing for the excellent Sylvan Ensemble that such instrumental magic suggested the fluid articulacy of Tippett or Britten. Fertile conversations surfaced: between the eloquent strings’ leader Richard George and Steve Rossel’s chuntering double-bass, or Richard Pinel’s constantly exploring keyboard; in some wondrously expressive detail for solo horn (Kerin Black); or in the teasingly syncopated, immaculately energised contributions from the percussionist Rob Farrer. Single woodwind (and harp) generated marvels galore: the colourings were almost exotic. This orchestral score garners all the delights of Prospero’s isle. It alone is a miraculous achievement.


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