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20th Century Choral Music

Joby Talbot Path of Miracles

Tenebrae/Nigel Short

Signum Classics SIGCD0078 [July 2005; 63 mins]

Here is a CD to give eclecticism a good name.

Joby Talbot (b.1971) is an accomplished professional composer, very successful in all genres from instrumental and orchestral to film music (a score for Hitchcock's The Lodger).

Path of Miracles, listened to on Good Friday, is a setting for the crack professional chamber choir, Tenebrae, of a text by Robert Dickinson, bringing to triumphant fruition an idea of Nigel Short's for a work about the ancient and still continuing pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostella, which is joined by some 50,000 pilgrims each year.

The premiere of Path of Miracles in the City of London Festival had to be postponed from 7/7/2005 (London was reeling from the bomb atrocities earlier that day) and took place later that month in St Bartholomew the Great; audiences remembering the fatalities of 7/7 in silent contemplation beforehand.

Talbot and his wife had visited (by car!) the most important cathedrals on the route, Roncesvalles, Burgos, Leon and Santiago di Compostella, and this work in four movements was the outcome - 'Tenebrae have surely got a major hit on their hands; Talbot’s Path of Miracles is to the first decade of the 21st century what Arvo Part’s Passio was twenty years earlier.’ (Nick Breckenfield).

I agree with that opinion; Path of Miracles is a complex co-operative creation, multilingual and with quotes from medieval texts. In the first movement passages from the Roman liturgy are interwoven with Dickinson's poetry, and there is an aboriginal effect from Taiwan, with rising pitches creating random overtones.

Such felicities abound; you may get confused and temporarily lost following the text on first hearing, but this is such a rich and many faceted work that I am sure you will grow to love and understand it better with repeated hearing.

As the pilgrims finally come to their destination, the opening incantation to Santiago returns and Talbot launches into an excerpt from Carmina Burana in a spirited five-beat rhythm.

A very good change from the usual Easter fare, superbly sung and recorded, and with intriguing detail in the presentation; the lines on the night-time cover picture are not record grooves but achieved with a long exposure of a "field of stars", their filmed tracks resulting from the earth's rotation.

In July Tenebrae will take Path of Miracles in a symbolic concert tour/pilgrimage from Burgos to Ponferrada, giving concerts Burgos, Fromista, Carrion de los Condes, Leon and Ponferrada.

Children of our time

SIR MICHAEL TIPPETT (1905–1998) Five Negro Spirituals from A child of our time
NICHOLAS O’NEILL (b1970) Ave verum corpus
RUTH BYRCHMORE (b1966) In the silence of the night
MARK EDGLEY SMITH (b1955) Five Madrigals to poems by e e cummings
FRANCIS POTT (b1957) Amore langueo

Schola Cantorum Oxford/Jeremy Summerly

Hyperion CDA67575 [70 mins]

Tippett was meant to be the lure for this CD, but circumstances delayed the 1995 recordings from being released for his 90th, and they are even late for his centenary.

His Negro Spirituals sound stranded outside their context in The Child of Our Time, and most of the other works chosen make a better effect and leave you wanting to know more of their composers. It is really a showcase for contemporary music for chamber choir, and this is one of Oxford's best.

Anthony Pitts grabs the attention by depicting the Ascension with a rising chromatic line, its dense harmonies doubtless difficult to learn but rewarding when mastered by this expert choir - non-professional but boasting many members who have gone on to become noted professional singers. Nicholas O'Neill's Ave verum corpus is tense and gripping, reaching 'the trial of death' with great intensity. Mark Edgley Smith matches the intricacies of e e cummings surrealist syntax, eliciting virtuoso performance.

The major works are Ruth Byrchmore's Rosseti settings In the silence of the night which exploit the perfect intonation of the choir and the quality of its members who take solos, and Francis Pott's Amore langueo, a magnificent large scale setting for double choir and four soloists of a 15th C poem brings the anthology to a satisfying conclusion. If their names and those of most of the other composers are unfamiliar to you, you are missing out! The CD is one that all choral conductors should acquire, and worth a try for CD collectors who avoid choral music.




op. 89 (1988) for Mixed Choir
MacMoon Songs III op. 154 (1999) for twelve voices and instrumental ensemble
Soulful Summer op. 146 (1997) Cycle for Mixed Choir

Three Songs
The Birds op. 129 (1994)

Ars Nova Copenhagen/ Danish Chamber Players Storstrøms Kammerensemble
Tamás Vetö, dirigent

DACAPO 8.224168 [65 mins; Nov/Dec 1999]


IB NØRHOLM (b. 1931) is an important Danish symphonists whose vocal works brought melodic renewal to the Danish tradition; this CD exemplifies the best of Scandinavian contemporary music for Chamber Choir, a genre which tends to be marginalised but can prove amongst the most rewarding in concert and when recorded.

This CD (2000), received recently from Denmark, is not new, but it has brought us such pleasure that it merits notice. The poetry chosen is mostly complex and allusive, and the settings make no attempt for the words to be easily audible and intelligible; they are provided, with translations, in an excellent booklet, printed clearly on thin paper to accommodate 48 pages.

Americana' Op.89 (1988) sets American poets including Whitman and Berryman. The MacMoon Songs III, supported by a substantial ensemble, use jazzy elements to accompany various choral techniques and there is every kind of choral writing from unisons through to 12 note clusters.The Birds is remarkable for its accompaniment, full and colourful despite being given to but four instrumentalist.

The music is fresh and immediately attractive, and it embraces a variety of 20 C idioms, with tonal triads and also twelve-note clusters and dissonances which, though technically demanding, yet are always comfortable for listening. It deserves and receives here expert professional singing.

For a fuller review see Classical Music on the Web



© Peter Grahame Woolf