Tuesday 3 November 2020

A young man's response to the world today: Alex Woolf's Requiem released on Delphian

Alex Woolf Requiem; Nicky Spence, Iain Burnside, Philip Higham, Anthony Gray, Vox Luna, Alex Woolf; Delphian

Alex Woolf Requiem; Nicky Spence, Iain Burnside, Philip Higham, Anthony Gray, Vox Luna, Alex Woolf; Delphian

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A young man's response to the world today in all its complexity, by turns questioning, solacing and deeply responsive.

Alex Woolf's Requiem was premiered in 2018 with the composer conducting the choir Vox Luna and soloist tenor Nicky Spence, for whom Woolf had already written a song cycle in 2012. Now the work has just come out on disc, following hot on the heels of the on-line premiere Woolf's opera A Feast in the Time of Plague, commissioned by Grange Park Opera and written during lockdown [see my interview with Alex].

Alex Woolf's Requiem is on Delphian with the composer conducting Vox Luna, with tenor Nicky Spence, cellist Philip Higham, pianist Iain Burnside and organist Anthony Gray.

In terms of structure, Woolf opts for something like the influential Requiem of Gabriel Fauré, setting the same movements except that Woolf misses out in 'Libera me' and reduces the 'Introit' to a single line. In the forces he writes for, choir, solo cello and organ, Woolf also nods to another influential French Requiem, that of Maurice Duruflé (which exists in a chamber version for choir, cello and organ). But structurally Woolf adds another dimension by including settings of poetry by the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke for solo tenor (Nicky Spence) and piano (Iain Burnside).

And this points to another, very different requiem, the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten. But whereas Britten almost seems to co-opt the settings of the Latin text as commentary on Wilfred Owen's war poetry (this is after all a War requiem), Woolf has his two worlds more in dialogue. Gillian Clarke's poem The Fall, the setting of which Woolf places in lieu of the missing 'Dies Irae', refers to the events of 11 September 2001 (9/11) but obliquely and instead of being 'about' something in particular, the result is to make the piece a very human work, with the Clarke settings acting as a counter-weight to the liturgical texts.

Woolf also makes the most of the changes of texture between the different worlds. The Clarke settings are all for tenor and piano, though Woolf's use of occasional cello and organ means that there is a bit of bleeding between sacred and secular, whereas the Latin Ordinary and Propers are for choir, organ and cello. The organ is a counterpoint to the voices, often they are unaccompanied with the organ commenting. The vocal writing does not sound challenging but that is because of the skill of the young professional singers here. Stylistically, clearly Fauré and Duruflé have been in the back of Woolf's mind, but the harmonic language often nods towards influential contemporary American voices, Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. 

Alex Woolf: Requiem - recording session with Vox Luna and Alex Woolf (Photo Delphian Records)
Alex Woolf: Requiem - recording session with Vox Luna and Alex Woolf (Photo Delphian Records)

Whilst the work does have disturbing, edgy elements and moments of drama, overall there is Fauré's sense of writing a work to comfort or console, rather than invoking the disturbing visions of, say, Verdi and it is in the tenor solos setting Clarke's poems that a questioning element enters. The cello solo is also no mere colouration, but a separate and distinct voice. Usually lyrical and questioning, almost keening, the Philip Higham almost makes his cello the protagonist of the work. This starts at the very beginning, with a stunningly dark and intense prelude just for organ and cello, and throughout the piece Woolf brings this sense of questing darkness back via the cello.

There are passages, particularly in the chorus, where I felt that Woolf has written what is beautiful and possible when I wanted something a little darker and more disturbing. But we each interpret the requiem mass in our own way and a lifetime spent singing requiems liturgically has given me a different point of view. Woolf probably hates people saying this, but it is worthwhile remembering that he is young; he was only 23 when his Requiem was premiered in 2018, and he won BBC Young Composer in 2012.

This is an enormously confident work, Woolf clearly knew what he wanted to achieve and did so. It is also highly practical in terms of its forces, the fact that the tenor solos are almost independent means that long expensive group rehearsals are not needed. Listening to the music, this is a work within the grasp of good amateurs and I think it would be a satisfying challenge to sing, and provide a real emotional pull in performance. I can't help feeling that there is also a slightly bigger version of the work in there, and that it would be interesting if someone would commission the composer to produce and orchestration of the piece.

It receives a fine performance from all concerned. Woolf proves a fine and discreet conductor of his own music and gets a responsive and fine-grained sound from his young singers, some of whom contribute lovely solo passages. As I have said, Philip Higham really shines in the long intense, lyrically keening lines for the cello, whilst Nicky Spence and Iain Burnside bring their own sensitivity to music and text to bear on the Clarke settings.

This is not the darkest requiem, nor the most comforting but it is instead a young man's response to the world today in all its complexity, by turns questioning, solacing and deeply responsive.

Alex Woolf (born 1995) - Requiem
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Iain Burnside (piano)
Philip Higham (cello)
Vox Luna
Anthony Gray (organ)
Alex Woolf (conductor)
Recorded on 24-26 November 2019 at St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood
DELPHIAN 1CD [55.46]
Available from Amazon, and from Hive.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: Music, neuroscience and fear of death in OAE's Bach, the Universe and Everything - concert review
  • Late Beethoven from the Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place - concert review
  • The smallest ditty can feel like a marathon if it does not fit the voice: following his appearance with Blackheath Halls Opera, I chat to tenor Nicky Spence about his career and planning roles  - interview
  • A timely reminder of what we are missing: The Crimson Bird, orchestral works by Nicola Lefanu on new disc from NMC - CD review
  • Three Tributes: music by Kevin Puts, Andrea Clearfield and Gunther Schuller - CD review
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  • An honourable failure or a misunderstood masterpiece? Another look at Weber's Oberon  - feature article
  • Weber at home: Complete keyboard duets from Julian Perkins and Emma Abbate - Cd review
  • Everything via Association: composer Vic Hoyland on his 75th birthday - interview
  • Welcome to the high energy world of Irish composer Ed Bennett: Psychedelia from NMC  - CD review
  • From the whole earth dancing to a day in hell: chamber music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad  - CD review
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