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<<  -- 2 --  Malcolm Miller    MEDIEVAL HEBREW


There is an almost ritual use of repetition in the strophic or modified strophic songs. The first section 'The Angels Try to Block His Way' is tripartite with dramatic outer sections and a very lyrical inner section. The second 'He Pleads with God for His Life' has a refrain form with Moses' pleading recited by the actor David Sibley, in a type of sprechgesang, rhythmically notated, though also with some aleatoric elements. It is interspersed with two types of choral textures, alternating between stark fifths-based biblical sonorities and sweeter fuller harmonisations. The slower third section 'God Bargains with Him' balances biting choral dissonance with a violin interlude, contrasted by the frenetic faster fourth section 'He refuses to Die', with a vigorous rising refrain for the ensemble in unison, the narration set over pulsating instrumental accompaniment, and an engaging chorus.

The fifth song 'He Cries Out For His Mother' in a lively five-beat pattern is suavely harmonised, while the sixth 'He Takes Leave Of His People' is more gentle, the narrator speaking over a smooth instrumental section and a chordal chorus contrasting women's and men's voices. In the simple yet effective seventh section the biblical verse 'He was buried in a valley in Moab opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place' is set to a soprano declamation on a repeated pitch, while the chorus fills out the harmonic space. The final main section 'His Mother Looks For His Grave' features a rhythmically buoyant interlude between stanzas with choral sections in dialogue. The intense final section sets the biblical verse 'There has never yet arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face' to sustained harmony which homes in gradually onto a single pitch.

Accompanied by a small ensemble with the composer himself at the piano, one could detect hints of Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams alongside Dawes' own distinctive, approachable style, the effect particularly enhanced by Robert Fried's English translation of the lucidly pronounced Hebrew. The cantata is a useful and appealing addition to the choral repertoire, eminently performable though also stretching, with contrapuntal textures and lots of dialogue between men's and women's sections. It is the third major work on a Jewish subject by Julian Dawes, including his Lamentations and the earlier Songs of Ashes, a song cycle dedicated to victims of the Holocaust which received a stirring performance at the Jewish Museum, Finchley on 18 March 2003 sung by the soprano Anya Szreter, with the present writer at the piano.

Copyright © 4 April 2003 Malcolm Miller, London, UK





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