Francis Pott: The Cloud of Unknowing – Musical Pointers
The Cloud of Unknowing was heard in a live concert performance in May 2006 with this recording following a year later.
The score carries the dedication “In memoriam Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq.” Its text is drawn from a wide range of sources encompassing religious and humanist traditions, putting it outside the conventions of Anglican worship. The tenor soloist represents part Christ, part Everyman, sometimes both at once.
In character it is a work of pessimism and deep foreboding. The opening sections in particular pose a huge challenge for the choir, who are required to sing very quietly with every syllable stretched out to its fullest extent, often well beyond the point where the words become indistinguishable and we are indeed faced with a cloud of unknowing.
But these “clouds” disperse to be replaced by visions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, intersecting with the mysticism of William Blake – potentially a powerfully heady mix, but one which I found to be perversely lacking in either menace or horror.
An extended setting of Psalm 23, which the composer describes as a retreat from the noise of battle, marks a transition phase and the breakpoint between the two CDs.
From here on the work settles into a quiet melancholy, a mood which sits very comfortably with Pott’s style, and a composition of significant stature emerges. Words become clear and telling, and in an atmosphere of gentle supplication the agony and the anguish of a conflict torn world are revealed.
James Gilchrist proves a tower of strength, pouring his very soul into it and weighting and colouring each phrase with loving care. The Vasari Singers acquit themselves more than honourably, surmounting both the complexity of the task and its length.
The organ is well played by Jeremy Filsell and the acoustic (Tonbridge School Chapel) is generous allowing the final passages to fade into a radiance of other-worldly ecstasy which would have done justice to Gounod.