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Alex WOOLF (b. 1995)
Requiem (2018)
Nicky Spence (tenor); Iain Burnside (piano); Philip Higham (cello); Anthony Gray (organ)
Vox Luna / Alex Woolf
rec. November, 2019, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London. DDD
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34240 [55:46]

Alex Woolf is a young British composer who, though he is only 25, seems to have forged quite a name for himself already. A pupil of David Sawer, Huw Watkins and the late Oliver Knussen, I learned from the booklet that he has had his music performed by a number of leading ensembles, including the BBC Philharmonic, the ORA Singers and The Tallis Scholars. In this recording of his recent Requiem he conducts the chamber choir, Vox Luna which he founded in 2018.

Woolf’s Requiem sets the Latin Mass for the Dead, into which he has woven three poems by the Welsh poet and playwright, Gillian Clarke (b 1937). The three poems are sung by the tenor soloist, usually accompanied by the piano and cello. The cello also has an important role in some of the choral movements, though the choir’s accompaniment comes principally from the organ. Many of the ten movements follow each other without a break.

It’s the organ and cello which we hear at the very start. These instruments introduce the Introit ‘Requiem aeternam’ with music of sepulchral darkness. The gloom lifts somewhat when the choir enters, singing very slow-moving music. The atmosphere is never less than intense and the movement builds to a powerful climax. The Kyrie, which follows, is a strong plea for mercy though Woolf skilfully causes the music to subside into a more reflective vein as the movement unfolds.

There follows the first Gillian Clarke setting. ‘The Fall’ is a reflection on the events of 9/11 and its opening stanzas were clearly inspired by those dreadful images of doomed people, trapped in the Twin Towers, who threw themselves out of the windows and fell to earth. The music is very slow and searingly intense. The piano part is largely chordal and over it, Nicky Spence sings his lines with gripping commitment. The cello leads us without a pause into the Offertorium and the choral writing comes as something of an emotional relief after the Clarke setting. In this movement, in which the organ and cello join, Woolf’s choral writing is very impressive. I think this is a compelling response to the words.

The Sanctus really commands our attention from the start: the choir and organ have imposing, declamatory music of praise. The tension relaxes a little in the Benedictus, during which alto and bass soloists have important roles – the singers here are very good. The next movement sets an unpublished Gillian Clarke poem, ‘A Crowd of Cares’. Here, the singer is accompanied first by the organ and cello and later by the piano. The music is impassioned throughout, as is Nicky Spence’s delivery.

The Agnus Dei, set for the choir, is a cappella for much of its course. The choir’s opening phrase put me slightly in mind of Samuel Barber’s Adagio which, of course, was subsequently arranged by Barber as a choral Agnus Dei. The slight kinship – if, indeed, there is a kinship - may be completely accidental but the phrase recurs several times during the movement. This is a very beautiful composition and when, towards the end, the cello joins in the instrument acts as a perfect foil to the choir, both in terms of its melodic line and the contrasting timbre.

The last of the Gillian Clarke settings is ‘The Year’s Midnight’. Here, the instrumental contributions from the piano and cello are consistently jagged. Once again, the vocal line is very intense. This is extremely unsettling music and Woolf builds the music to a very powerful climax at the words ‘The earth speaks in parables’: here, one almost forgets that only three musicians are involved, so potent is the performance.

The last two movements are choral. First comes ‘Pie Jesu’ which is completely a cappella. At first the music is hushed – though even here there’s no lack of intensity – but the music builds incrementally until it reaches a climax. Here, the choir’s music is ecstatic and tumultuous before the piece subsides back to the hushed ambience of the opening. This is quite an unconventional approach to this particular text but I think it’s highly effective. The concluding movement is ‘In Paradisum’. This setting is distinguished by lovely choral and organ textures from which a beautiful solo soprano line rises from time to time. The closing pages are gently luminous and this leaves the listener with a very positive impression.

I found a great deal to admire in this Requiem. If I’m honest, I found the tenor solo movements hard going at times. Perhaps this is due to the unremitting intensity of the music but, as I listened, I came to wonder if the voice of Nicky Spence – who reminded me at times of Robert Tear – was quite right for the piece. This is not to fault his singing per se but I saw in his biography that he has recently made his role debut as Parsifal. I’m sure the composer was delighted by Spence’s hugely committed approach to the music but I wonder if a lighter, though no less intense, voice might have been more in scale. The singing of Vox Luna is excellent throughout. I guess that the choir comprises professional singers and this would explain why they make such a big sound when required, even though there are only 15 singers (4/4//3/4). The choral singing is superbly focussed and controlled; the wide dynamic range is particularly noteworthy. I think the choir has the more appealing music in the piece: on the evidence of this one piece I think Alex Woolf is a fine composer of music for choir; he clearly has an excellent ear for choral textures. I must not overlook the contributions of the three instrumentalists; they are marvellous throughout.

Alex Woolf’s Requiem is an important score. It speaks eloquently and sincerely to the listener and the musical language is always accessible. The music is a committed response to the texts and in his settings Woolf challenges the listener to think about the words thanks to the nature of his music; that’s as it should be.

The work has been recorded with great presence and impact by engineer Matthew Swan and producer Paul Baxter. There were a number of times when, listening through headphones, I could hear what I think was the sound of cellist Philip Higham’s breathing but, far from being a distraction, this added to the intensity of the listening experience.

I’m very glad that Delphian have recorded this work. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in contemporary choral music to investigate it

John Quinn

Previous review: William Hedley



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