Paul Spicer has established a significant reputation as a choral conductor, firstly with The Finzi Singers, with whom he made a series of highly-regarded discs, mainly for Chandos, and more recently with Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir (review review
). He’s also an author who wrote a valuable biography of Herbert Howells, published in 1998; his latest book is a biography of Sir George Dyson, to be published this year. If all this - and teaching commitments as well - were not enough, he is a composer. Though he has written music in several genres I think it would be fair to deduce from the list of works on his website
that his principal interest lies in the field of choral composition. Not long ago Em Marshall-Luck gave a warm welcome to a CD entitled Come out, Lazar
, which contained a selection of his shorter choral pieces (review
). The present recording, made a few years ago, presents a significantly more substantial piece, a full-length oratorio on the Resurrection story.
The work was commissioned by the Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir, who, fittingly, take part in this recording, to mark three anniversaries in 2000: the Millennium itself - the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ; the 250th anniversary of the death of Bach; and the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Lichfield Cathedral by St Chad. The original intention was that the new work would be a Passion setting but on reflection it was decided that a better idea would be to take up the Easter story where Bach left off in his Passions settings - at the entombment of Christ - and focus instead on the Resurrection of Christ. The libretto was written by Dr. Tom Wright, who was Dean of Lichfield Cathedral at the time the project was first mooted and later (2003-2010) was Bishop of Durham. Wright brought to the libretto not just literary flair but also a unique perspective as an acknowledged leading scholar of the New Testament.
As Paul Spicer himself has written, the oratorio ‘is structured, as are Bach’s Passions, by telling the gospel story interwoven with choruses, arias, chorales and hymns which reflect the story from different angles.’ The work is divided into two parts of roughly equal length. Part One is entitled The New Day;
Part Two is The New Calling.
Part One deals with events immediately after the Resurrection: the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb; Christ appearing to some of the disciples; the episode of ‘Doubting’ Thomas’. In Part Two Christ gives the disciples their mission. He appears to some of the disciples, causing them to have a bumper catch of fish and then, having breakfasted with them, confirms Peter as their leader: ‘Feed my lambs; feed my sheep’.
The scoring calls for four soloists, who have assigned roles as shown in the header to this review. In addition SATB and boys’ choirs are required. The orchestral forces are large but not lavish, and there’s also a significant organ part. The audience is drawn in, just as the Lutheran congregation would have been in Bach’s day; at six key points in the score the audience is invited to join in the singing of well-known Easter hymns.
The Gospel narrative in the libretto is from St. John’s Gospel, primarily chapters 20 and 21, so Tom Wright picks up the story where Bach leaves it in his St John Passion
. The non-narrative passages consist of words by Wright himself and include many biblical allusions and references, as befits someone with his deep scriptural scholarship. Thus, for example, at the very start of the work the opening chorus, in the space of a few lines, spans from the Creation of the world in Genesis right through to several images of consequences of the death of Christ. A little later, when Mary mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener Wright takes that as his cue to build in images of planting, gardening and the Garden of Eden into the subsequent chorus. It’s all very skilfully done and I think that in narrative and structural terms the libretto works very well. So, generally, does the use of up-to-date English: a reference to St. John as ‘The unnamed, special friend whom Jesus loved’ towards the end of the work is, for me, a rare misjudgement.
The interaction between Paul Spicer’s music and the words is very successful. Spicer’s music is recognisably English in tone - and none the worse for that. It is not derivative but you can tell that here is a musician who, as a composer and as a performer, has drunk deeply at the wellspring of English music, freely imbibing, in particular, the influences of Howells, his old teacher, Finzi and Vaughan Williams. Yet these influences are then subsumed into Spicer’s personal style: he is his own man. One thing that I like about the musical structure of the work is the way in which narrative passages, arias and choruses all flow seamlessly into each other. There are few if any gaps and so the ‘action’ flows very well and imparts impetus and genuine urgency into the proceedings. The fact that the individual sections are all quite short - only one exceeds five minutes in length - also helps in this respect.
The music is consistently attractive and accessible. The chorus is given plenty to do and though I haven’t seen a score it sounds as if the choral parts are interesting, varied and rewarding. The Birmingham Bach Choir, whose conductor Spicer has been since 1992, give a very good account of itself here, singing with good tone and dynamic range, clarity and conviction. The boy choristers of Lichfield Cathedral have significant contributions to make at several occasions and do so with confidence, singing well. Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir acts as the audience on this occasion, boosting the singing during the six congregational hymns. Spicer has chosen to include some stirring Easter hymn tunes, including Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
and The Day of Resurrection
; my only slight reservation is a nagging feeling that these hymns are somewhat over-arranged, especially the last verses. That said, the work concludes with the hymn Ye choirs of new Jerusalem
and as it unfolds it appears that Spicer is going to end the oratorio with a perhaps predictable, triumphant Big Finish, festive with trumpets and drums: but he doesn’t. That moment passes and instead the final pages - a concluding ‘Alleluia, Amen’ - are subdued, serene and reflective in tone; for me, that’s very satisfying.
The four soloists all acquit themselves well. Two stand out. Tenor Philip Salmon is a fine Evangelist. His voice is supple and clear, his tone ringing and his diction immaculate. The music to which he sings the narration is a mixture of recitative and arioso and he tells the story effectively and without any affectation. I enjoyed his performance very much. Baritone Jonathan Gunthorpe makes an excellent impression as Jesus. The sound of his voice is consistently pleasing; his tone is round and full and, like Salmon, every word is not only clear but is made to count. I think it’s a difficult assignment for any singer to portray Jesus; it’s easy to fall into the trap of being too reverent and sounding somewhat sanctimonious - the singing of John Carol Case on Boult’s recording of Elgar’s The Apostles
is, arguably, a case in point. Gunthorpe makes no such error: he invests Christ’s words with natural dignity and the results are very satisfying.
The orchestral forces are not extravagant. The scoring includes six each of woodwind and brass - I was mildly surprised that it appears horns, so often at the heart of the modern orchestra, are not used. Strings, percussion, celesta and organ are also required. The ESO plays well but, whether by design or for reasons of economy , the string section is rather on the small side and there were some occasions when I thought the strings sounded a bit undernourished - and not just when ‘competing’ against the brass. Spicer’s scoring is colourful and effective. I like his writing for woodwind, for example, and there are a number of imaginative touches such as the prominent tuned percussion parts accompanying the bass aria ‘The victory of the cross is now declared’ in Part I. Actually, the percussion seem a little too
prominent here, I feel, either because the players are playing too loudly or because they’ve been recorded too closely.
Spicer himself conducts and, as you’d expect from a conductor of his pedigree, the results are impressive. The music consistently has energy and purpose, even when the tempo is slow or the mood reflective. What’s particularly noteworthy is the evident commitment that all the performers bring to the music: they are fully engaged and that engagement added to the quality and appeal of the music means that the listener’s attention is consistently gripped. There’s a Spring-like freshness and a feeling of optimism and joy about the music which is both refreshing and appealing.
Though Easter Oratorio
is a substantial work I hope choirs will not be deterred from tackling it for this is a significant addition to the choral repertoire, written with conviction by someone who understands choirs and choral music. It’s an attractive, sincere and well written piece that should be ideally suited to choral societies. This committed, excellent and enjoyable recorded performance will, I hope, bring the piece to a wider audience.
The recorded sound is good and the documentation is comprehensive.