Album Review

Posted: Friday 2nd November 2007
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Francis Pott: The Cloud of Unknowing – International Record Review

This recording constitutes a zeroing-in on fundamental principles for Francis Pott, a reaffirmation of some kind of other-worldly scheme, even if it isn’t turning out to be the brand of religious faith he once ardently subscribed to. Perhaps, as Pott proposes in his brimful insert notes, an alternative higher truth is to be found in the notion of ‘a Crucifixion perpetually re-enacted within the atrocities of successive ages’. Psalm 23 triggers in the composer an allegorical affinity for one particularly repugnant tragedy in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004, although the music’s ‘brief’ reaches somewhat further; indeed it pays homage to ‘all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq’.

The soloist in what emerges as an oratorio for our modern age is here embodied by tenor James Gilchrist. This figure, worldly and unworldly (a Christ figure or ‘Everyman’ reluctant soldier, prophet), is propelled forward from a brief organ prologue and choral outburst and functions ambiguously throughout this ambitious musical setting. The protagonist’s closing lament, a salutary expression of grief following almost 90 minutes of thoroughly absorbing music, is ‘My God my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’. ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, which lies ‘betwixt thee and thy God’ remains elusive, ephemeral and ethereal to the last bars.

The Vasari Singers under the baton of Jeremy Backhouse have an impressive curriculum vitae that spans some 27 years, a band of musicians clearly dedicated to the furthering of quality of British music: Vasari has commissioned and premièred nearly 20 important works in less than a decade, producing as many CDs. This disc seems likely to prove an apotheosis among apotheoses for Vasari, such is the prodigious care with which they tackle Pott’s passionate and apocryphal – or should that be apocalyptic? – masterpiece. Gilchrist carries his multiple identity with indomitable fervour, the luxury of his tonal resources securing Pott’s vision as unswervingly as the choir itself achieves. However, to describe the music as ‘moving’ somehow seems as unsatisfactory as to sum up the tragedies Pott evokes as ‘shocking’ : just a word. Rather, there is a meditative counterpart to this music, an experience which can really evolve only by taking it in a single hearing. Pott’s juxtaposition of Biblical fragments with texts by William Blake and Odysseus Elytis emerges as an entirely wholesome libretto, and the choir manages to clasp the image throughout, with Jeremy Filsell’s organ-playing sealing the textures with unshakable sensitivity.

Particularly menacing in its fantastical design is ‘Is this He that was transfigured’, an amorphous musical space that might have been filled by Arvo Pärt just as readily, or perhaps even Herbert Howells. In fact, it is the calculated exploitation of that most indispensable of musical building blocks – absolute silence – that fixes these choral and solo events together so utterly convincingly. The choir is never more stirring than in ‘In one little time may heaven be won and lost’, a chilling yet strangely conciliatory entreaty that trickles forward from an unending musical breath.

The sound-blend in this recording is never short of compelling, even in the more sinuous strands of music to be found in the passing of the penultimate ‘Amen’ from choir to soloist and back again, leading to ‘The love in him was such’. It was recorded in Tonbridge School earlier this year; the acoustic is sublimely appropriate and the organ colours wonderfully vivid. This is something of a tour de force for Francis Pott and Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers, and a disc of some distinction.

International Record Review