Thursday 1 December 2022

Russell Pascoe's Secular Requiem from Truro Cathedral

Russell Pascoe: Secular Requiem; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Julien Van Mellaerts, Truro Cathedral Choir, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christopher Gray; Regent Records
Russell Pascoe: Secular Requiem; Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Julien Van Mellaerts, Truro Cathedral Choir, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Christopher Gray; Regent Records
Reviewed 30 November 2022 (★★★★)

A wonderfully ambitious project from Truro recording Pascoe's fascinating contemporary requiem, determinedly secular yet powerfully expressive and very thoughtful

Many composers write sacred music for liturgical purposes even though the composers themselves may not be a believer, in a sense this simply reflects the composer's role as a provider of useful music. For some composers, their belief is a core part of their expression, and a setting of any sacred text has a sense of identification. But if a composer is an unbeliever and wishes to explore the themes implicit in some of the great liturgical texts, then they are presented with a problem or a challenge. Composer Russell Pascoe has risen to this challenge by creating Secular Requiem

In a hugely ambitious project, Christopher Gray (recently announced as the new director of music at St John's College, Cambridge) conducts Truro Cathedral Choir, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and soloists Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Julien Van Mellaerts in Russell Pascoe's Secular Requiem, plus his Threnody for Jowan and A Sequence for Remembrance on Regent Records. Recording for the project began in 2019, but was held up by COVID and the requiem was not recorded until 2022.

Pascoe wrote his Secular Requiem in 2012, discussing the project with the poet (and retired clinical academic) Anthony Pinching who helped assemble the texts. The libretto falls into five sections, The Proposition, The Recognition, The Reaction, The Transition, and The Accommodation which mirror the five stages of grief. The texts are varied, John Donne, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dylan Thomas, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, Thomas Moore, Stephen Anderton, Rabindranath Tagore, Walt Whitman and Anthony Pinching. It is a selection that is somewhat measured, there is contemplation, reflection and humour, and whilst there is some anger, Dylan Thomas' 'rage against the dying of the light', this is not an angry work. You feel that if Pascoe had been impelled to write a setting of the liturgical text, he would have omitted the Dies Irae, like Faure and Durufle.

We begin with a quietly intense setting of John Donne's No man is an island, and here as in many places, Pascoe uses the orchestra to colour and comment on the chorus contribution rather than trying to dominate. A Wilfred Owen setting follows I saw his round mouth's crimson, an urgent solo for baritone Julien Van Mellaerts and the first section ends with a refrain, Peace, my heart, using a fragment of Tagore that will reoccur throughout the piece.

The second section begins with a duet for the two soloists, The Going, setting Thomas Hardy. The music here is vividly urgent though Pascoe does seem to find the wordiness of Hardy's text something of a challenge. Requiem, setting Robert Louis Stevenson, is a beautifully realised and warm setting that uses the choir unaccompanied at first, as if this was a part-song, only gradually bringing the orchestra in. There is something timeless about this setting, and it would certainly work on its own.

The third section begins with a choral setting of Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle, and here it is the orchestra that makes the first impression with vivid anxiety, mirrored by the choir. There is much striking word setting here and some terrific dramatic textures, though perhaps not quite the intensity of anger I would have expected, but the way it contrasts the intensely dramatic with the quietly intense is striking. A setting of an 8th century Japanese poet comes next (in a 20th-century translation), a thoughtful solo for Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the orchestra surrounding the Wyn-Rogers' expressive arioso with lines and with a wordless choir almost as part of the instrumental line-up.

The fourth section is one of striking contrasts, perhaps reflecting the different aspects of The Transition. First comes Thomas Moore's The last rose of Summer, from Van Mellaerts and the choir in a setting which avoids all sense of folkiness and the parlour, and it certainly makes you listen to the words again, particularly the last verse. The result, lyrically appealing and melodic, is striking and moving especially when so beautifully sung here by Van Mellaerts. Then comes Stephen Anderton's Cats and Cakes which deals with the issue of loss with humour, the poem being the contemplations of the dead soul worrying about all she has left undone, with a repeated 'Don't forget to feed the cat' and a final anguished cry about leaving the cakes in the oven. It is vividly performed by Wyn-Rogers who clearly relishes the wonderful opportunities for character that the piece gives her. Then, having teased us with bits of it, we get a beautiful choral setting of Rabindranath Tagore's Peace, my heart. Here the focus is on the choir, beginning with some beautifully transparent singing from the trebles and girl choristers. The text ends with one of Tagore's lovely images of a lamp, 'I bow to you and hold up my lamp to light you on your way', finely rendered here by the two soloists accompanied by the choir.

The final section begins with a striking orchestral peroration, with a repeated timpani beat giving a sense of marching forward, striving onward. Come lovely and soothing death is a setting of Walt Whitman that owes nothing to other composers' approaches to this much-set text. Pascoe creates a fine, large-scale choral piece that interweaves choir and orchestra. We end with one of Pinching's own poems, Seasons. The orchestral writing weaves in elements from earlier in the work, this is definitely a piece that has been considered as a whole, rather than as a series of separate elements, and it is lovely the way Pascoe manages to keep a commonality of approach through the movements, whilst bringing plenty of variety. This is a finely crafted ending, though in places Pinching's lyrics feel slightly too wordy for Pascoe's melodic approach, and the work builds to a surprisingly radiant and positive end.

This is a hugely ambitious piece and one that faces the challenges head on. I have to confess that I am not always quite convinced by some of Pascoe and Pinching's solutions to the problem of the secular requiem, but overall this is a thoughtful and intriguing work. There is no doubt that under Christopher Gray's masterly direction, Truro Cathedral Choir gives a superb performance, bringing real maturity to the singing (with a choir that includes 16 boy choristers and 17 girl chorister), finely supported by BBC NOW.

Pascoe's Threnody for Jowan sets Richard Madden's poem Every leaf must fall, a finely expressive unaccompanied setting that was written in 1995 in response to the loss of the new-born child of a close friend. Touching and beautifully rendered.

The disc ends with Pascoe and Pinching's A Sequence for Remembrance, commissioned by Truro Cathedral for the centenary of the end of World War I. It is a cycle of unaccompanied choral pieces interleaved with movements for string orchestra. So the work begins with an intense prelude, then comes a setting of Siegfried Sassoon's Reconciliation, a nicely expressive part song. As ever with Pascoe's writing, his ability to shape lines in unaccompanied music is finely done. A vivid, yet short string interlude leads to a setting of a verse from Binyon's For the fallen worked into a very large-scale movement (over seven minutes). I loved Pascoe's music here, but have to confess that I would have wished for a text other than the Binyon. It moves from quietly intense to a powerful climax and then unwinds, the choral repetitions bringing an element of sacred minimalism into the work, and lending it a hypnotic quality, and there is a lovely solo from Oliver Thorpe. The second interlude is in classic English string music territory, lovely indeed. Finally, there is Pinching's own Moving On, which forms a striking choral climax to the work.

This disc is a wonderful achievement for the cathedral choir, the biggest such project that they have undertaken and a huge amount of work (the sheer learning, particularly for the boys and girls), yet the performances give none of that away, all is poised, moving and expressive.

When reviewing such contemporary works, I am very aware that it is difficult (if not impossible) to take my composing had off. My response to a work is coloured by my own ideas of approaching that subject, those texts if I were the composer. Here, the requiem itself moves into territory of real interest to me, I have written my own work for choir and instrumental ensemble that uses Rabindranath Tagore's poetry to move through the five stages of grief, and elsewhere I have set both the Dylan Thomas and Walt Whitman texts used here. I did enjoy and appreciate this work, though inevitably my response here will be coloured by my own compositional thoughts.

Russell Pascoe (born 1959) - Secular Requiem (2012) [49:13]
Russell Pascoe - Threnody for Jowan (1995) [3:47]
Russell Pascoe - A sequence for Remembrance (2018) [18:37]
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)
Choir of Truro Cathedral
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Christopher Gray (conductor)
Recorded April 2019, May 2022, Truro Cathedral

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