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Wings of Faith works fabulously well, for Joubert triumphs on almost every front, both musically and dramatically. His writing for orchestra -- here, fourteen gifted section leaders and soloists of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, incorporating five strings, four woodwind (with some striking doubling of piccolo, cor anglais and bass clarinet), horn, piano, organ and percussion -- reveals the hand of a seasoned master. One revelled in the magnificent sweep of the work and the sheer excitement at the evident craftsmanship Joubert brought to bear. It's a scintillating, bracing, urgent work, and Joubert handles his large choral and instrumental forces with utter confidence. Every nook and cranny of the score seemed replete with rich implication and weighty event.

Joubert has, as previously, collaborated with Stephen Tunnicliffe, the gifted librettist behind several of his meatier sacred oratorios to date, including The Martyrdom of St Alban; and Tunnicliffe's text is surely one of the strongest Joubert has set to music yet. True, there are occasional moments for a raised eyebrow: 'Fragmenting orts of sound'; 'Is this quagmire, this grimpen, faith?'; 'Liquid diapason, forever flowing free'; 'as earth diurnal rolls'; but viewed more positively, even these passages recall the Pietist libretti and inspired aria texts of Bach and Telemann. At best, there is a recurring feel of Herbert, Traherne, Vaughan and the other Mystical Poets, at times reaching forward towards T S Eliot ('What is a thousand years? A cosmic blink.')

One clumsily prolonged, imbalancing narration, prior to the stoning of Stephen, caused tension to sag momentarily; and to introduce two slightly peripheral new characters (Ananias and the centurion Cornelius) close to the end marginally weakened the impact of the close. Yet these are minor -- or solvable -- complaints: Joubert's eight-scene structure (plus hymnic Prologues and Epilogues), with each narrative plus aria or ensemble concluded by a striking variety of choruses, is lent force by a range of both narrative and meditative layers. The emergence of two convincing fugues, a haunting ground bass, and some terrific choral commentaries, sung by the adroit girl singers of Ex Cathedra's exciting and polished young Academy and Junior Academy of Vocal Music, only added to the thrilling intensity of Wings of Faith.

The greater part of the work held one enthralled. In Part I (The Word Fulfilled), some ravishing writing for the soprano Mary (Natalie Clifton-Griffith), enchanting both in aria -- 'They have stolen my love, my all' -- and in Mary's recitative, as she soars above the buoyantly expressive youth choir ('Rabboni, you live! The tomb is an empty case'), recalled Joubert's scintillatingly rapt writing in his sequence 'Rorate coeli desuper', which was recently revived by Skidmore and Ex Cathedra. A devilish scherzo for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (tenor Nicholas Mulroy, baritone Eamonn Dougan, sizzlingly good) was strikingly offset by the bare stichomythia of their rapid exchanges with Jesus (James Birchall). A recurrent, cleverly self-rearranging organ chord neatly furnished the note for the Youth Choir's entry ('Stay with us, Lord, breaking the bread of life'). One was constantly impressed by what good use Joubert made of these forces offered him: in no way were the young singers written down to, or sidelined: their role in the oratorio is utterly central.

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Copyright © 5 May 2007 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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