Friday 11 June 2021

Meditation and Prayer: new commissions from Sir James MacMillan and Will Todd in an evening themed on the writings of Cardinal Newman

John Henry Newman by George Richmond (1844)
John Henry Newman
by George Richmond (1844)

Cardinal Newman: Meditation and Prayer
- Sir James MacMillan, Will Todd; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, Alexander Armstrong; Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street (via live-stream)

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 June 2021
Two wonderful new commissions at the centre of this programme of words and music themed on the writings of John Henry Newman

Cardinal Newman is a somewhat complex figure who is known to musicians mainly through Elgar's use of his words for The Dream of Gerontius (and the hymns derived therefrom), but the hinterland of Newman's thought and theology remains largely unexplored in music.

Last night (Thursday 10 June 2021, the Genesis Foundation and Classic FM presented Cardinal Newman: Meditation and Prayer at the live at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, with a small invited audience, and live-streamed (I watched the latter). The centrepiece of the evening was the world premiere of two settings of one of Newman's meditations by Sir James MacMillan and by Will Todd, performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. Also in the programme was sacred music by Parsons, Laloux, Tye and Harris, plus readings from Newman and John Donne by Alexander Armstrong.

The Sixteen were at full strength, 18 singers in four ranks taking full advantage of the depth of the church's chancel.

Both new commissions set text from the same Newman passage, A meditation on trust in God (written in 1848, four years after the portrait above and three years after his reception into the Roman Catholic Church), which Alexander Armstrong also read. The impetus behind the writing had remarkable prescience to the modern day but for the average secular person Newman's writing does require you to get behind the language somehow. Luckily, the responses of the two composers were wonderfully direct and approachable.

Sir James MacMillan's Nothing in vain began with a solo voice and, in his evocative contemporary take on Gaelic psalm singing, this developed into waves of multiple voices, luminous polyphonic textures built from cascades of sound. The nub of the text was conveyed by a florid tenor solo delivered by Jeremy Budd at his effortless best. This was a work rich in drama intimacy leading to a radiant conclusion.

By contrast, Will Todd's I shall be an angel of peace began with an intriguing yet haunting, wandering solo violin line played by Sarah Sexton, over choral ahhs. The work developed from the dialogue and interaction between violin and rich choral harmony, as solo violin and choir flowed into and out of each other. But for all the harmonic richness, there was warmth and thoughtfulness too.

The programme had opened with two works by the early Tudor composer Robert Parsons, his familiar Ave Maria filled the acoustic wonderfully, whilst the less familiar O bone Jesu (a nod perhaps to Robert Carver's large-scale 19-voice motet and Sir James MacMillan's equally large-scale contemporary response) was beautifully rendered as it moved between gorgeous ensemble and quietly intimate small groups.

Between the MacMillan and the Todd came the Tantum Ergo by Fernand Laloux (1901-1970), a name new to me. Belgian born, he came to the UK in 1914 and ended up as director of music at Farm Street. His Tantum Ergo reminded me somewhat of music by his French contemporary Pierre Villette (1926-1998), recognisably Francophone in musical voice with intriguing contemporary hints within a conservative voice.

The evening finished with a lovely account of the Agnus Dei from Christopher Tye's Missa Euge Bono, moving from flowing yet concentrated to something more expansive, and then William Harris' Bring us, O Lord, setting a text by John Donne. Harris is best known for his luscious double-choir motet, Faire is the Heaven, written in 1925. Bring us, O Lord is equally luscious and also for double choir but dates from 1959. Very retro in style for the period but truly glorious.

The concert is available on-line for 30 days via the Classic FM Facebook page.

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