Friday 31 August 2018

Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion

Howard Goodall: Invictus - Coro
Howard Goodall Invictus: A Passion; Kirsty Hopkins, Mark Dobell, Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, The Lanyer Ensemble, Stephen Darlington; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 August 2018
Star rating: 4.0

The combination of Goodall's lyrical style and his intriguing selection of texts make for a striking new Passion

I have to confess that on first encountering Howard Goodall's  Invictus: A Passion I was somewhat taken aback to find a re-telling of the passion story presented in the context of a musical style which included not only hummable tunes but positively toe-tapping melodies. But then, if you think about it Bach's Passions include their fair number of ear-worms, and Goodall's writing certainly is not simplistic, neither is his choice of text for that matter. He simply expresses himself in melodic terms. So I returned to the piece, and found it rather intriguing and not a bit moving.

Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion has been issued on The Sixteen's Coro label, with Stephen Darlington conducting the Christ Church Cathedral Choir, soloists Kirsty Hopkins and Mark Dobell (both from The Sixteen), and the Lanyer Ensemble.

Goodall has taken a distinctive path when it comes to structuring the Passion, the basic narrative comes not from the Gospels but from Aemelia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judeaeorum, a narrative poem published in 1611 and possibly the earliest book published in English by a female author (Lanyer, nee Bassano, was a highly educated woman at the Elizabethan court and may even be the 'Dark Lady' of Shakespeare's sonnets). To this narrative, Goodall adds poetry by mainly female poets, mainly from the 17th to the 20th century, with work by Christina Rossetti, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, William Wilberforce, William Ernest Henley, A.E Housman, Isaac Watts, WB Yeats, George Herbert as well as from the Bible.

The work is structured as a series of movements, with Lanyer's narrative being woven in with the other poetic extracts, so we have Gethsemane whose persistently ear-worm refrain of 'Gethsemane' links together the various different texts on similar themes, Lamentation which uses a poem by an African-American author and abolitionist campaigner, His Paths are Peace which sets only Lanyer, Compassion which sets Biblical texts, Invictus which sets the poem by W.E. Henley, Golgotha which again sets Lanyer, Easter Hymn setting a Housman poem, The Song of Mary Magdalene using an extract from Christina Rossetti's poem Mary Magdalene and The Other Mary alongside Isaac Watts and a Biblical extract, and finally I will arise which weaves Lanyer's narrative with WB Yeats The Lake Isle of Innisfree (a slightly unlikely choice it has to be confessed), George Herbert, WE Henly and William Wilberforce. Overall, there is a certain sense of the texts looking at the Passion narrative from the female perspective.
There is not so much a feeling of arias, choruses and chorales as sections flowing into each other. Goodall allows his music to be fluid and certainly does not feel constrained by his melodies, the work does not separate into a series of songs instead it creates a continuous lyrical narrative.

The instrumental ensemble uses two string quartets (used antiphonally rather than as a large ensemble) with double bass, two horns and piano, plus a solo saxophone (Christian Forshaw) which forms a sort of obbligato over the music. Goodall uses his unusual instrumental forces imaginatively, and textures are strikingly fluid and evocative, with Goodall moving between sparseness and full textures, always expressive and always fascinating; he certainly is not afraid of paing things down Having enjoyed the music on disc, I would be interested in hearing it live to get a better feel for the antiphonal writing in the strings. Christian Forshaw's fine soprano saxophone line weaves its way expressively through the music, adding another layer to the mix.

The two soloists, Kirsty Hopkins and Mark Dobell, make a superb contribution, combining an expressively lyrical line with a feeling of passion and superb diction. And treble Daniel Kelly also contributes a fine solo. The choral part is substantial and moves between moments in their own right to supporting and commenting on the soloists. The choir of Christ Church Cathedral embrace Goodall's lyrical style with gusto and produce some fine moments. The choir's diction does not always match that of the soloists, so you need to refer to the booklet texts and there were occasions when a slight lack of unanimity suggested a rather tight rehearsal schedule.

This is bound to be a popular work with choirs, but for all its approachability and melodiousness it is a complex piece and I think that smaller scale performances such as this one will suit it best. It is a work worthy of investigation and if you allow Goodall's style to seduce you, then ultimately rather moving.

Howard Goodall (born 1958) - Invictus: A Passion
Kirsty Hopkins (soprano)
Mark Dobell (tenor)
Christ Church Cathedral Choir
Lanyer Ensemble
Stephen Darlington (conductor)
Recorded at St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, 14-16 March 2018
CORO COR16165 1CD [58.02]

Available from Amazon.

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