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Vaughan Williams
: Mass in G Minor
Francis Pott: The Cloud of Unknowing

London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, St Pancras Church, London 13 May 2006

Vasari Singers/Jeremy Backhouse

Jeremy Filsell (organ)
James Gilchrist (tenor)

Vaughan Williams' important and compact Mass (1922) confirmed its stature of repute in a rare performance by Vasari Singers which made a satisfying first half to an unusual and controversial concert (see link to review quoted below).


It was preceded by the Bishop of Edmonton interviewing the composer Francis Pott about his new work, premièred at this concert, which had so grown during composition that it had to be programmed separately from the other Anthems for the 21st Century which the Vasari SIngers had commissioned, and which have been recorded by Signum.


Pott's commission had been for an extended anthem of approximately 15-20mins, suitable for use in the context of choral evensong (but not necessarily using text from the bible). He explained that it took him over as he worked and it became a major creation, four times the prescribed length; a composition by a "struggling Christian - wanting to want to pray" in the "troubled new century" which challenges belief - "music predicated on doubt - - articulation of uncertainty", seeking "the suffering Lord" wherever he may be found.


Had something similar happened during the composition of Pott's vast two-hour long Passion Symphony Christus? Those of us who "wanted to organise our evening" were warned that it was 80 minutes long... That Francis Pott can work successfully on a more human scale is shown by his fine Amore langueo included in a recently recommended CD.


The Cloud of Unknowing has an interesting text conflated from "a variety of sources, periods, and original tongues, both sacred and secular". It moved the composer deeply as his work evolved, and it moved the audience to an ovation; one chorister was seen to have tears rolling down her cheek towards the end, with its equivocal optimism counterpointed with Jesus's "My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?". I am sure other commentators will be less grudging than what follows. *


But a critical review must address the music itself, and here we found that Pott's ambitions over-reached his skills. The score is demanding for everyone, and not only because of its length. The choir is stretched to a limit, with the sopranos challenged as by Beethoven, and the Vasari Singers acquitted themselves well. The tenor solo tests power and endurance, and Francis Pott was fortunate to have James Gilchrist to give it his all. Likewise Jeremy Filsell was worked hard at the organ but to lesser effect than anticipated.


After about half an hour we began to tire of the music's relentless busyness, intensity and disconcerting samenesses in Francis Pott's chromaticised tonal idiom. In Pott's CV it is said that the press has compared his style with composers as diverse as Nielsen, Barber, Janácek, Messiaen, Martin, Tippett, and even Fauré... But, to our ears,The Cloud of Unknowing is firmly based in an English choral tradition, sounding determinedly pre-Messiaenic, pre-Janacek's Glagolithic Mass (whose dramatic solo organ eruptions are so much more telling than Pott's organ interlude) and far less original than Britten in his War Requiem. Pott's work "perhaps humanist in essence before it is specifically Christian or devotional" is not likely to achieve a concert-hall life but may attract future performances in festivals of church music.


q.v. Review of the CD of The Cloud of Unknowing in Musical Criticism

Historical perspective on the Mass in G minor by Vaughan Williams
The Mass in G minor was the first substantial, unaccompanied setting to be written with a distinctly English voice since the time of William Byrd. - - one of VW's most "neglected" works. That's quite unfair because it is one of his supreme compositions : It's a creation of such magnitude and novelty that there was possibly no equivalent in the twentieth century, as far as choral music is concerned -:( Jean Couture)


* q.v. Richard Morrison in The Times

Francis Pott Choral and Organ Music

Mass in Five Parts

Introduction, Toccata and Fugue for organ

Motet Jesu Dulcis Memoria

Settings of Psalm 126, Newman and Traherne


Choir of Christchurch Cathedral Dublin , dir. Judy Martin

Tristan Russcher (organ)


Signum Classics SIGCD080


The study of English history is a debate about continuity and change. Francis Pott, on this CD, is an ideal ambassador for those same values within the English choral tradition. Pott himself began his career as a chorister at New College , Oxford , and spiritually, he has never left, for all that he is now a distinguished composer and academic. As his endearingly old-world and modest personal memoirs in the booklet suggest, his mastery of modern styles is not in any sense an abandonment of a powerful attachment to an unbroken history of music in cathedrals and big chapels.


As Pott also modestly admits, he is only one of many composers to have come out of this cathedral tradition, which requires an understanding of a capella , motet-style writing, as well as of the grandeur supplied by organ music or orchestral accompaniment. Pott is certainly completely at home in this idiom, whether acknowledging musical influences such as Byrd and Leighton, the latter especially in using chromaticism to convey intensity, or gesturing towards the French organ tradition, at once other-worldly and rhetorically expansive. As the hymnbook doesn't quite read, this is Music Ancient and Modern , expertly performed by the Christchurch choir, with Russcher an excellent interpreter of the organ work


Is Pott original or is he just very much of his time, in being an historically informed summary and recombination of all the music that has gone before him? When one looks not just at music but also other cultural forms, the succession to post-modernism has above all been a less severely theoretical return to conversation and narrative.


Remembrance this, homage that; every piece on this disc was written for a specific occasion or commemoration. Certainly, the familiarity of Pott's sound world and forms – the texts, the traditional mass and motet forms, the vocal lines that sound as one expects them to sound – suspends critical reaction; this is very ‘spiritually' sensuous music, irrespective of its intellectual backbone. I remain unconvinced I have completely grasped the specific gravity of Pott's voice, but at the very least, one would say these are significant and striking contributions to the repertoire.


Moreover, Pott's writing is entirely in concordance with what the current Pope, a noted theologian, has analysed extensively as the essential function of sacred music – to enact and to make available to the senses a conception of the Holy that cannot be conveyed by the mere words of the liturgy.


The Mass is the centrepiece of the disc, but the movements are interspersed with the other works – it has been commented that the whole disc makes sense as the musical part of a full church service. The Benedictus and Agnus Dei are especially moving. Elsewhere, Pott displays (as also in his notes) a deep interest in and sensitivity to written literature, and to the texts he is setting, producing a miniature Brahms requiem in the setting of Psalm 126.


Another MP writer found the resonant cathedral acoustic hard to deal with. True, the acoustic is resonant, but the English choral tradition, and indeed Francis Pott's own career, are indissolubly bound up with these large echoing spaces. The recording, by Limo Hearn, is atmospheric and faithful, catching especially well the trebles.


Ying Chang

Pott's Meditations & Romances: another of our reviewers had difficulty with this disc: "the problem is that the choir is completely swallowed up in the barn like acoustics of Dublin Cathedral," which she knows and could never recommend as a recording venue - "the recording really does no justice to a sensitive composer". [Editor]