Wednesday 17 August 2016

A pilgrimage to Santiago: To the Field of Stars

To the Field of Stars - Nonsuch Singers - Convivium Records
To the Field of Stars, Jackson, Victoria, Pärt, Byrd, Dove; Nonsuch Singers, Kate Gould, Tom Bullard, Convivium Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 25 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Gabriel Jackson's cantata for Victoria and Pilgrimage Trail to Santiago de Compostela recorded by the choir which gave the work's UK premiere

The main work on this new disc from Convivium Records is Gabriel Jackson's cantata for choir, cello and percussion, To the Field of Stars, recorded by the choir which gave the work's UK premiere, the Nonsuch Singers, conducted by Tom Bullard, with cellist Kate Gould and percussionists George Barton and Stefan Beckett. The programme is completed by Arvo Pärt's O Morgenstern (from Sieben Marian Antiphonen), Victoria's Vidi Speciosam, Jackson's Creator of the Stars of the Night, Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis and Jonathan Dove's Seek him that Maketh the Seven Stars.

Jackson's To the Field of Stars was premiered in 2011 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Victoria's death and the Pilgrimage Trail to Santiago de Compostela. The work has already been recorded by the St Jacob's Chamber Choir from Stockholm, one of the work's co-commissioners. The present disc represents the debut recording of the Nonsuch Singers, a non-professional choir based in London.

The work is in seven movements separated by refrains setting texts taken from a medieval pilgrims' hymn. In addition to the medieval texts, Jackson also mixes in texts by John Adams (the second President of the USA), William Cowper, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson. The piece contemplates the idea of pilgrimage in the wider sense and in  his booklet note Jackson says he wanted to avoid a more literal approach.  The work's title comes from the possibly etymological origin of Compostela as 'campus stellae' (field of stars), and the seventh movement of the work includes a list of star names. The final movement ends with Jackson's re-working and expansion of Victoria's motet O Quam Gloriosum, so it is appropriate that the choir begin the disc with this motet.

Numbering some 40 singers, the choir brings a soft-grained sound and very much a choral approach to Victoria's motet. The bright recorded sound, in quite a resonant acoustic, tends to favour the upper voices. The first movement of the cantata, Intrada, is an attractive mix of choir, cello and bells, with the rhythmic music for the choir in dialogue with a rhapsodic cello. Prayer for travelling has the choir in two groups, a quiet narrative from one in dialogue with melismatic chant-like passages for the second group and for the cello. Jackson develops quite an attractively complex texture from relatively simple melodic means.  Pilgrims Song with History starts as a lively setting of a medieval text over a vigorous cello line but then a bass soloist, Christopher Saunders, recites John Adams' description of the origin of the shrine of St James. Walking with God uses a William Cowper poem with a beautifully lyrical setting with rich harmony complemented by singing lines from the cello. Miracles sets a text by Walt Whitman in a gentle interleaving of choir and cello, with the choir having a lovely transparency of sound.

The lively refrain between these movements provides a sense of linkage and a sense of constant movement onwards. Our Journey had advanced sets an Emily Dickinson poem. Starting off with a lovely transparent sounding setting but developing faster rhythmic intertwinings, with a soprano solo from Rowena Clewlow. Campus Stellae  has the list of star names sung in sustained fashion by high voices, with rhapsodic moments from the cello, creating a magical texture which is almost interrupted by the great outburst of Victoria's O Quam Gloriosum. Jackson elaborates the music, adding parts and then the cello solo so that it moves from Victoria on steroids to Jackson's own joyful voice.

This is a striking work, quite gentle in overall conception, beautifully and imaginatively written. The Nonsuch Singers under Tom Bullard give a finely engaging performance which highlights the transparency of Jackson's writing, though sometimes I would have liked darker tones in the sound and more of an edge to the line. At times the soft-grained sound blurs much of the detail of the inner parts, and the sound does not have the focus and presence I would have liked. Cellist Kate Gould brings a fine singing quality to Jackson's cello part.

The accompany items all mine the theme of stars. O Morgenstern from Arvo Pärt's Sieben Marian Antiphonen is gently blended but I rather missed hearing it in context. Victoria's Vidi Speciosum and Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis are both quite large scale in conception with very much a choral sound.

Jackson's Creator of the Stars of the Night starts off gently unaccompanied, with nicely shaped phrasing before grwing and adding an organ to reach a joyful climax. Jonathan Dove's Seek him that Maketh the Seven Stars brings the recital to an imaginative conclusion.

This is a fine debut disc for a non-professional ensemble and those interested particularly in Jackson's To the Field of Stars should have no hesitation in buying the disc.

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) - O quam gloriosum est regnum
Gabriel Jackson (born 1962) - To the Field of Stars
Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - O Morgenstern
Tomas Luis de Victoria - Vidi speciosum
Gabriel Jackson - Creator of the stars of night
William Byrd (1542-1623) - Laudibus in Sanctis
Jonathan Dove (born 1959) - Seek him that Maketh the Seven Stars
Nonsuch Singers
Kate Gould (cello)
George Barton & Stefan Beckett (percussion)
Richard Pearce (organ)
Tom Bullard (conductor)
Recorded at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London, October 2014
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