A Fascinating Work
The first performance of Gabriel Jackson's Requiem,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL
The Vasari Singers, under conductor Jeremy Backhouse, is one of the most enterprising of the UK's non-professional choirs, and for their Remembrance Day concert at St Martin in the Fields, London [11 November 2008], the group was true to form and presented a concert centred on the première of Gabriel Jackson's Requiem. The remainder of the programme inventively mixed other In Memoriam pieces, such as Herbert Howells' Take him Lord for cherishing (written in memory of John F Kennedy) and John Tavener's Song for Athene (written in memory of Athene Harriadis but notably sung at the funeral of the Princess of Wales). They completed the concert with a group of 17th and 18th century penitential pieces: Allegri's Miserere, Lotti's Crucifixus (the eight part version) and Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater.
The unaccompanied choral repertoire is not over-endowed with what I think of as crowd-pleasers, works which are almost guaranteed to put bums on seats. The keen eyed amongst you will already have noticed that the Vasari Singers programme contained a remarkable number of such items; I would class the Tavener, Lotti and Allegri in this category and Howells' anthem has a very strong following. It was almost as if the group felt that they could not quite trust the power of good music and had to rather over-egg the programme in order to attract an audience.
Jeremy Backhouse and his singers opened with Herbert Howells' moving Take him Lord for cherishing. The women's vocal tone was rather soft grained and lacked the crystalline clarity which this piece needs and occasionally the chords were rather muddy, but this powerful performance made a strong start to proceedings. It was followed by Tavener's Song for Athene, a piece in which the choir needs to sound relaxed whilst remaining in total control. The Vasari Singers did not quite achieve the required perfection but the performance was entirely creditable.
For his first setting of the Requiem mass, Gabriel Jackson chose to set the Latin movements of the mass interspersed with settings of other English texts from poets with a wide variety of backgrounds. For the Latin texts Jackson set a selection from the ordinary and the propers, using the Introit (Requiem in Aeternam), the Gradual (Requiem in Aeternam again), the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the Communion (Lux Aeterna). For the other texts, Jackson's selection encompassed Rabindranath Tagore, Walt Whitman, a Japanese poet, an indigenous Native Australian and an American Indian (Mohican).
Though different in a number of details, the general selection of items and arrangements rather reminded me of Howells' Requiem, where Howells mixed settings of Latin texts (notably two different Requiem in Aeternam settings) with English Psalm texts. This resemblance grew when I actually heard Jackson's new Requiem. Though the work opened with the plainchant, it soon developed into a rich, romantic choral sound which reminded me of the Howells of the Requiem and the early Latin motets rather than the more austere post-war Howells. Each of the Latin movements was set in this style and the choir relished Jackson's style, producing a warm, richly textured choral tone.
For the English texts, Jackson chose to add to the mix a selection of more advanced choral methods, particularly aleatoric techniques. For the setting of the Native Australian text he at least avoided the didgeridoo effects which Malcolm Williamson introduced into his Requiem for a Tribe Brother. But instead, Jackson introduced a strange keeing, wailing motif which reminded me of James MacMillan at his most pibroch influenced Scottish. For this movement and in the setting of a text by the Japanese poet Hojo Ujimasa, Jackson concentrated on the contrast of textures, between pure vocal line and the vagueness the newer vocal techniques introduced. For the Whitman setting Jackson used parts of the Ode to Death, passages which are probably familiar from Holst's setting. He set the text in long lines over a shimmering, undulating vocal texture. The result was intermittently magical, though the women of the choir showed some strain at the top of their voices.
For the Tagore setting, which used text from The Gardener, Jackson's response was richly romantic, with shimmering chords that evoked both Howells and the contemporary American composer Eric Whitacre. I felt that Jackson's response to Tagore was rather too romantic and that a more austere approach might have been better. For the final interpolated setting, of the words by the Mohican chief, Jackson had the words spoken by a soloist over a choral texture created from fragments of the Requiem in Aeternam text; an effect which did not quite work.
Under Backhouse's fine direction, the choir responded magnificently to Jackson's richly romantic style and produced much gorgeous choral tone, though inevitably there were moments when choral tone turned muddy and attacks were not clean. The choir was less confident in the variety of styles which Jackson introduced into the non liturgical sections; a number of the aleatoric passages sounded a little tentative. Overall, these interpolations sounded less confident and hence, less convincing. The uniformity of Jackson's response to the Latin text made me wonder whether he had introduced the various different textures in the English texts so that he could add some variety. Unfortunately I found some of these English movements sounded rather more gimmicky than spiritual.
Jackson is a gifted composer of music which evokes spirituality, and I had high hopes of his Requiem. It proved to be a Requiem almost entirely devoted to consolation, with little of the anxiety, fear and pain which even Fauré manages to bring into the work. It is certainly a work I would like to hear again.
The second half opened with a striking performance of Lotti's short, but wonderfully chromatic Crucifixus. The version of the Allegri Miserere which followed was the standard 20th century confection, rather than one of the recent reconstructions of Allegri's original; but this is probably what the audience expected. The choir sang with fine strong choral tone so it was unfortunate that the soloists, placed in the balcony, had tuning problems. The solo soprano who had the unenviable task of delivering the sequence of top Cs proved to have a serviceable top range to her voice, though she lacked the spine-tingling chill factor which is necessary to a performance of this version of the work.
The final item in the concert was Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater. It was probably unwise to perform a work as long and complex as this at the end of such a challenging concert. Scarlatti requires a ten part choir (with four soprano parts) and ten soloists. Though the performance was creditable and had moments of great beauty, there were too many little moments of uncertainty of attack and of tuning. Also, Scarlatti requires his soloists to perform at times with almost operatic bravura, something that singers with strong choral technique usually fail to do.
I could not help feeling that the entire concert would have benefitted from the Scarlatti being dropped. If the choir had performed the motets in the first half and left the second for just the Jackson Requiem, this would have had two benefits. Firstly it would not have led to the feeling, at the end of the concert, that the choir was tired and slightly over extended. Secondly it would have given the Jackson Requiem space to be appreciated. As it was, this fascinating work seemed a little hemmed in, as if Backhouse and the Vasari Singers did not quite trust it.
As it was, Jackson's Requiem received a creditable performance which left me feeling that it was a fascinating work which had not yet achieved its potential.
Copyright © 12 November 2008
Robert Hugill, London UK
BILL NEWMAN TALKS TO JEREMY BACKHOUSE