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Wind without mercy

Robert Hugill's 'Passion' -
reviewed by KEITH BRAMICH

'... a very distinctive soundworld ...'

Hugill: Passion. The Burgundian Cadence. © 2000 Robert Hugill

Passion by English composer Robert Hugill is an original combination of the old and the new. An early music ensemble (The Burgundian Cadence) of just four male voices sings music by a contemporary composer, words from The Gospel according to St John brush shoulders with poems written nearly two thousand years later (a selection from Carl Cook's The Tranquil Lake of Love), and plain recitative is set alongside more contemporary-sounding harmony.

'The story of Christ's passion is one of the most influential and resonant in Western Culture', writes Hugill. 'It has influenced Christians and non-Christians alike for two thousand years. Within the story can be found echoes of many other stories and myths from our culture. My desire was to reflect the resonance of the passion story and to examine the dichotomy between past and present.'

As well as interspersing very contrasting texts (along the lines of, for example, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, or Tippett's A Child of our Time), Hugill also wanted to examine how traditional forces could be used in contemporary music, and how this music might interact with earlier music from the performers' repertoire.

From the start, Hugill's is a very distinctive soundworld, closely connected with the anglo-catholic choral tradition (in which the composer also sings). The music sounds rich, sensual and strange, sometimes sweet and intertwined. Rupert Damerell's counter-tenor sound here is rich, pure and spookily unnatural, perhaps even supernatural. When combined [listen -- track 9, 1:16-2:55] with wordless singing from the other three singers as a kind of holy trinity in sound on which floats Damerell's voice of Jesus, the effect is especially startling.

The music moves forward quite quickly through the Gospel story, with much workmanlike recitative, to form a forty-minute whole, pausing for intervals of reflection [listen -- track 8, 0:33-1:21] with each of the six contemporary chorale-like settings of Carl Cook poems :

Since it is true that rain
falls on the just
and the unjust alike, I
have prepared for the
storm impending, the wind
without mercy, but this
you must know above all -- my
love will not cease.

There are interesting subtleties to Hugill's word painting, for example his treatment of the word 'Golgotha' [listen -- track 11, 2:20-3:20] (Hebrew for 'The place of a skull'). Here the voices weave gently around the word, perhaps creating the impression of emptiness, or even of Cook's 'wind without mercy'.

Passion was first performed in 1999 by the Burgundian Cadence, and the group toured the work, including performances in Lincoln Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral, before making this very clear recording. This is unusual, striking and committed music, full of love both for the voice and for its religious subject, well-performed and recorded, and quite a phenomenon, not least since (or perhaps because) Robert Hugill is self-taught.

If you're in London this weekend, there's a chance to hear a selection of Hugill's choral music -- his Ave Verum, Cantate Domino, Lucis Creator Optime, In Principio and A Hymn to God the Father -- alongside works by Byrd, Mozart, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Elgar, Aurelio Porfori and Paul Ayres. The choir FifteenB, conducted by Paul Ayres and with Malcolm Cottle at the organ, perform at the Chelsea Festival -- 8pm, Saturday 26 June 2004 at St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, Chelsea, London SW3 5BT, UK.

Copyright © 23 June 2004 Keith Bramich, Worcestershire UK


Robert Hugill - Passion

ZEN608 DDD Stereo 40'58" 2000 Robert Hugill

The Burgundian Cadence: Rupert Damerell, counter-tenor (Jesus); Simon Biazeck, tenor (Evangelist); Matthew Woolhouse, tenor (Evangelist, Damsel, Officer, Servant); Simon Gallear, bass (Pilate, Peter)

Robert Hugill (born 1955): Passion (1999) for a cappella vocal ensemble - The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St John (words selected by the composer) with six interpolated poems (from 'The Tranquil Lake of Love' by Carl Cook, Vega Press, 1993)




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