Joby TALBOT (b. 1971)
Path of Miracles (2005)
Conspirare/Craig Hella Johnson
rec. 2014, St Martin’s Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas.
Written for seventeen-part choir with a sparing use of crotales, which are small metal discs which sound like high-pitched bells, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles is an evocation of four of the major staging posts along the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The text is by Robert Dickinson, which is given in the booklet in English and French, with a printable copy in German from the Harmonia Mundi website. The work has been recorded before by the commissioning ensemble Tenebrae on Signum Classics (see Rob Barnett’s review for further background reading on the composer and this work).

Path of Miracles is a highly effective and accessible work easily recommendable to contemporary music newbies and sophisticates alike. As pointed out in Rob’s review, the worlds of Tavener and Pärt are brought to mind if one is looking for entry levels, but there is much more going on here than mere pastiche. I was hooked by the strange effect of the low overtone singing at the very start of the piece, and there is much that is moving and beautiful in the work, as well as some passages of real passion and drama. In the end you have to listen for yourself to decide if it has this effect on you, but with two recordings now available the main question has to be, which is the one to choose?

I would like to be able to say that honours are about equal in terms of the competition, but interesting differences are thrown up, and while personal tastes will play a role here there are criticisms to be made. Nigel Short’s ensemble Tenebrae on Signum Classics is a little more compact in terms of timings for each movement, and has a different kind of clarity when compared to Conspirare. The voices of Tenebrae have a distinctive timbre in their various registers, with voices or sections emerging from the texture where Conspirare is more homogenous. Tenebrae is also tighter as a group, arriving for instance at the climax of that slow opening upward glissando with spectacular accuracy, something which ends up rather indistinct from Conspirare. The bass voices also have more character further on in this movement, and this also applies as a general comment. You may or may not prefer the English choral sound, but Tenebrae nails the linguistic accents and the feel of absolute focus and intonation more convincingly throughout the entire piece. Just into the eleventh minute of Burgos there are passages of heartbreaking beauty from the Tenebrae voices, with drooping figures undermining the chanting voices of the faithful, followed by a close-harmony chorale which has a real spirit of simplicity and timelessness. The effect just isn’t the same from Conspirare, who sing with beauty but somehow fail to make the spiritual hairs on the back of your neck sit up like radio antennae in quite the same way.

Path of Miracles is a bit of an eclectic mixed-bag in musical terms, but even where hints of various influences can be traced this remains an honest and sincerely personal statement. The opening of Leon is sublime, and once again it is the sound of Tenebrae which makes you feel as if you are being drawn upwards towards the heavens by an invisible rope. The sopranos of Conspirare are also angelic, but everything sounds a little too diffuse and distant to have a comparable effect – the comparison making you realise it is the tenors who actually hold the other end of that spiritual skein, those in Texas just not taking up quite enough slack for you to put your faith in them not letting you fall. Santiago has a directness which is irresistible, and Conspirare makes a lovely sound here. A strong aspect of this new recording is the sense of devotional commitment you feel from the performance, portrayed as much as a luminous religious experience as something developed for the concert stage. The Tenebrae singers enunciate with that English crispness which again you may or may not prefer, but once more it is the distinctive character of the timbre in each line which makes the music so much more affecting. This is a kind of vocal ‘orchestration’ which lifts everything beyond then general ‘choir’ sonority, leading your ear in all kinds of directions and generating overwhelming effects when homophonic verticality emerges.

Both recordings are delicious in their SACD sonics, and with the score instructing the movement of voices from one place to another in the space it really is worth taking up your central seat for the full experience. With Tenebrae’s greater clarity this effect is a little more striking from Signum, but the Harmonia Mundi recording is also admirably spatial.

It is nice to see this work receiving wider attention and more recordings, but if you already have the Signum Classics release from Nigel Short then you’ll have no need for this one from Harmonia Mundi. That said, this is still a very beautiful and impressively produced recording of a fine contemporary vocal masterpiece, and for that alone it is to be highly commended.

Dominy Clements

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