Owain PARK (b. 1993)
Footsteps (2016) [16:56]
Joby TALBOT (b. 1971)
Path of Miracles (2005) [62:25]
Fellows of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (Footsteps)
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 2005 (Talbot); 2016 (Park). DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD471 [79:22]
This recording of Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles is not new to the catalogue. It was first issued back in 2006 when it was reviewed appreciatively by Rob Barnett. For this reissue, timed to celebrate Tenebrae’s 15th anniversary, it is coupled with a new piece by Owain Park, which was written specifically to complement it.
In a booklet note Nigel Short explains that he invited Park to write the piece as something that would be inspired by the Talbot piece and “…would be totally new and offered the chance for any singer to take part in a performance of a new work alongside Tenebrae.” And so, for example, when Tenebrae came to Tewkesbury Abbey in July for as part of the 2017 Cheltenham Music Festival - their programme corresponded with the contents of this CD - they were joined for the Owain Park piece by the Cheltenham Youth Chamber Choir. I was unable to attend that event so I was especially glad to catch up with the disc.
Path of Miracles is all about the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Wisely, Owain Park has steered clear of using that subject explicitly. Instead, he has written a work which, as he puts it, “structure[s] a narrative that cycles the seasons through the view of a lonely traveller who is constantly being moved on before being allowed to settle, finding comfort in the sky and stars above.” I presume that Park has constructed his own libretto. The text represents a considerable achievement in that words by no less than eight writers have been woven together pretty seamlessly in a work that takes less than 17 minutes to perform. Furthermore, the selection of writers ranges from an early 12th century Buddhist scholar through to Emily Dickinson. There are four main sections, each corresponding to a season of the year starting with Summer; in addition, there’s a prologue, which is revisited at the end. The work plays continuously. Two choirs are used: a main SATB choir (Tenebrae) and a semi-chorus (here the 8 excellent voices of the Fellows of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain).
I’ve heard one or two pieces by Owain Park before but nothing on this scale. I must say I’m mightily impressed by Footsteps. Though I haven’t seen a score and can only judge by what I hear, the music seems to be most imaginatively and skilfully written for voices. The semi-chorus parts, whilst within the compass of good amateurs, I’m sure, offer such singers a satisfying degree of challenge. Park’s music fits with and enhances the words very well indeed. The piece seems to me to dovetail nicely with the Talbot piece yet it is suitably differentiated from it as well. I would certainly advise that whenever you listen to this CD you should allow an interval of at least several minutes between the two works. I’d also say that despite its complementary origins Footsteps also works very well as an independent piece. It’s very good to have the piece on CD and the performance is superb. Incidentally, by a nice piece of symmetry the producer of the recording of Footsteps is Adrian Peacock. He was also involved in the recording of Path of Miracles but as a singer; indeed, he’s the excellent bass soloist in the first movement.
I’m embarrassed to say that until now I’d not heard Path of Miracles. I now realise that this was a serious omission on my part because it’s an astonishing piece. It traces the pilgrim journey along the Camino from the small Spanish town of Roncesvelles at the foot of the Pyrenees, via the cities of Burgos and León to Santiago and the names of those four places are the titles of the four movements of Talbot’s work. In fact, many pilgrims carry on from Santiago to the Spanish coast at Finisterre and that’s where Talbot also concludes his journey. The libretto is by Robert Dickinson and he has included within his original text a number of excepts from other relevant sources. I think the libretto is entirely successful.
I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Robert Dickinson when I say that Joby Talbot takes his very fine libretto and, through his music, brings it to life. That’s not to say that Dickinson’s text does not have life of its own but, rather, that Talbot brings it to life in a new way. The music is brilliantly imagined for unaccompanied voices and one thing for which I was profoundly grateful is that Talbot gets all the effects he wants just through singing. In other words, the choir is not asked to make any outlandish sounds such as one often hears in contemporary vocal works. The one exception, if such it be, comes right at the start where Talbot gets his singers to vocalise wordlessly using a technique used in Taiwan whereby “low voices rise in volume and pitch over an extended period, creating random overtones as the voices move into different pitches at fluctuating rates.” The quotation is from the outstanding booklet note by Gabriel Crouch, which provides a comprehensive introduction to the work. The effect of this opening is arresting I wonder if the intention is to suggest what Crouch calls the “veritable Babel” in Roncesvelles as pilgrims from all over the world assemble at the start of their odyssey – it certainly suggests powerfully a sense of expectation.
The first movement concerns the martyrdom of St James and how he came to be venerated. The second movement, ‘Burgos’ concerns what is the most difficult part of the journey as pilgrims begin to realise what they’ve taken on – and how much lies ahead of them. Here the text includes apprehensive prayers and details of miracles worked by St James. Talbot’s music is tense and nervous, most effectively portraying the tribulations of pilgrims. By the time the travellers reach León they know they are more than halfway to Santiago. It may not be downhill all the way – literally or figuratively – but the back of the trek has been broken. The sense of greater optimism is illustrated by luminous writing for the higher voices while the narrative is principally entrusted to the lower voices. As the movement reaches its close the harmonic writing becomes ever richer and more fervent but the movement ends in contented, luminous tranquillity, the harmonies radiant.
As the last movement begins journey’s end is in sight and, in fact, the moment at which the pilgrims get their first distant sight of Santiago is Talbot’s cue to provide an explosion of dancingly joyful music – at this point Dickinson includes some words from the Carmina Burana but we’re a very long way from Carl Orff, both in terms of the nature of the music and the sentiments expressed. A medieval pilgrim hymn has been woven into the music at several points earlier in the work; now it is sung as a great acclamation. As I said earlier, Talbot’s pilgrimage does not end at Santiago. Instead he and Dickinson take the listener on to Finisterre. This is the occasion for a contemplative ending over the last six minutes or so of the score. As the work draws to a close we hear the pilgrim hymn one last time, this time sung to English words and bedecked in rich block harmonies. At the very end, the music just fades away suggesting, I think, the sight of the infinite horizon as one looks out to sea from the Spanish coast. This, I believe, serves two purposes. As the name of the Cape suggests, in the middle ages people thought Finisterre was the end of the world. Furthermore, Talbot’s device of a fade-out suggests that a pilgrim’s journey never really comes to an end.
Path of Miracles is a truly astonishing composition. I would go so far as to say it’s inspired. The music is both stimulating and satisfying and the listener is constantly being led on by the compelling combination of words and music. I should imagine it’s prodigiously difficult to sing but Nigel Short and his highly skilled singers give a virtuoso performance. Anyone who cares about contemporary choral music should hasten to hear this wonderful score.
The recordings of both pieces are first class, presenting the voices in an ideal fashion. I see that when Rob Barnett reviewed the original release of Path of Miracles it was issued as an SACD with surround sound: the reissue is as a conventional CD. Notwithstanding that, the sound remains excellent and in fact Signum’s overall presentation of this disc, including a very comprehensive booklet, is first rate.