Album Review

Posted: Monday 11th September 2006
Share this:

Will Todd: Mass in Blue –

Back in 2004, reported on Will Todd’s extraordinary Mass in Blue, performed at the Barbican by the Hertfordshire Chorus, who commissioned the work in 2003.

Now the piece has been given a well-deserved recording by the multi-talented Vasari Singers under their conductor Jeremy Blackhouse, so those of us that haven’t been lucky enough to hear a live performance can now understand what all the fuss has been about.

Blending jazz and blues styles with largely well-written solid choral writing, the Mass in Blue wears its eclecticism lightly. Expression is the main priority, and Todd – who appears in the recording as the solo pianist – employs whatever style seems right for the text and the moment, rather than showing off his compositional virtuosity just for the sake of it. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how structured the work is, considering its jazzy surface: the Mass is a legitimate entry into the choral repertoire.

As the liner notes say, the opening Kyrie eleison is reminiscent of a negro spiritual, and the Vasari Singers give it an edge of pain and contrition as the words (‘Lord, have mercy’) suggest. Todd uses blues-style harmonies to flatten chords, and the jazz trio group (Todd on piano, Jim Fleeman on drums and Gareth Huw on double bass) punctuates the choral sections. Soprano Bethany Halliday is a remarkably versatile musician, lending her operatic full tone to this more laidback and loose idiom in her entries over the choir.

The Gloria is a very successful blend of the ‘classical’ and the ‘popular’. A unison beginning from the choir introduces the other instrumentalists, including a prominent saxophone. The choir builds impressively to more harmonically complex lines, whilst the middle section is a nimble counterpoint between the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus in 5/8 time. Brass entries throughout provide the golden thread that holds the movement together.

There’s an irresistible gospel approach to the Credo, which is led with panache by Halliday (though I find her Latin a bit stretched). The Vasari Singers provide a solid background, and Todd’s piano accompaniment is inspired. The centre of the movement describes the Crucifixion of Christ in more solemn tones, and there’s a brilliant contrapuntal section before the return of the blues in the final section.

Translucence of sound characterises the poignant Sanctus, which relies heavily on the higher voices for purity of sound. The soprano saxophone again adds a special piquancy; this is the most emotional part of the work as a whole. Yet the Benedictus is powerful in a quite different way, making a journey from near-silence to high exuberance, and Halliday once more helps lead the way, her vocals showing great flexibility of range. And though the concluding Agnus Dei is too complex to describe in detail here, it suffices to say that both choir and solo soprano top their excellent performance with an unexpected shift from sombre prayer to a return to the stirring Credo music, ending on a high point.

The CD is generously filled out with a range of short works written by Todd over a number of years for various reasons. These include a simple but elegant prayer, Lead Me Lord, written for the chapel choir of Durham School in 1997, and None Other Lamb, a setting of a Christina Rossetti poem from 1998.

Performances are excellent throughout, and the music becomes more absorbing on every playing. Fans of high-quality choral singing should not miss the opportunity to grab this with both hands as soon as possible.

The Vasari Singers perform a programme entitled ‘Radical Masses’ at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 26 September 2006, including Will Todd’s Mass in Blue and Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.

Dominic McHugh