Friday 11 August 2017

Miracles and Footsteps: Tenebrae in Joby Talbot and Owain Park

Joby Talbot - Path of Miracles - Tenebrae - Signum Classics
Park Footsteps, Talbot Path of Miracles; Tenebrae, National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, Nigel Short; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 2 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Joby Talbot's remarkable 2005 work meditating on pilgrimage with a new companion by young British composer Owain Park

Joby Talbot's Path of Miracles was written for Tenebrae and was due to be premiered on 7 July 2005. The London bombings that day prevented the work's premiere (it was subsequently premiered later that year) but the recording went ahead. For Tenebrae's 15th anniversary Nigel Short have revived Path of Miracles on an extended tour. The work's original 2005 recording is now issued on Signum Classics with a specially commissioned companion work, Footsteps by Owain Park.

Path of Miracles is a remarkable, large-scale work. In four movements, it lasts over an hour and throughout the piece Talbot's control of the emotional texture is superb as he creates an extended meditation on pilgrimage and what it is to be a pilgrim. The work is centred on the pilgrimage to Santiago and the four movements are named after the main stations on the Camino Frances (the French route), Roncevalles, Burgos, Leon, Santiago.

But the text is far more than simply descriptive. The work's librettist, Robert Dickinson, has assembled a striking patchwork of texts in a variety of languages, ranging from medieval texts such as the Codex Calixtinus and a 15th century work in the Galician language, Magres de Santiago, passages from the Roman liturgy, and Dickinson's own poetry.

The music is very loosely descriptive, the first movement uses a remarkable device whereby low voices rise in pitch and volume to give us an appreciation of the gathering of the pilgrims, and we get snatches of the pilgrim's hymn as well as the description of the beheading of St James. In Burgos we are firmly on our way, struggling on the pilgrimage, whilst Leon is inspired by the glories of Leon cathedral. The final movement, follows a burst of joy with extended reverence and reflection, but followed by great joy.

In style, Talbot's writing is rather an extended meditation, but not a simple one. The choral writing is challenging and takes no prisoners. His writing is a mosaic of fragments and styles which coalesce into a magical series of textures. The control and intensity from Nigel Short and Tenebrae is nothing short of marvellous. Overall the piece has a very distinct sound world, but woven into this are hints that Talbot has been listening to Arvo Pärt and others of the Baltic minimalist schools, as well as the RVW of the Shakespeare Songs. The results have a numinous quality, all the more remarkable for the way Talbot sustains the mood over the whole span of the work.

Not surprisingly, amateur singers who heard Tenebrae perform Path of Miracles were interested in finding similar repertoire of an approachable standard. This was the thinking behind Owain Park's Footsteps which was commissioned by Tenebrae to specifically have a part for a second choir capable of being sung by amateurs. For this recording Tenebrae is joined by the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain.

Park's work uses a similar patchwork process to Path of Miracles for the libretto and has similar themes, of travel, solitude and journey. In the case of Footsteps we are guided through the seasons. Whether deliberately or accidentally, Park's work feels akin to that of Talbot's though Park's writing, whilst not without challenges, seems to have less of the intense complexity of Talbot's work. It makes a fine companion piece, and Park has showed himself adept at capturing a mood and extending it across a piece lasting over 15 minutes.

Owain Park - Footsteps (1)
Joby Talbot - Path of Miracles (2)
National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (1)
Nigel Short (conductor)
Recorded All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 4 November 2016 (1), 8-11 July 2015 (2)
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