Album Review

Posted: Sunday 9th November 2008
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Francis Pott: The Cloud of Unknowing – Pizzicato Record Journal

Supersonic Award Winner

A magnificent recent work, an outstanding interpretation, a faultless collaboration. Fortunate indeed are the composers to whom, as in this case, the chance is offered for their work to be recognised as transcending all boundaries. In this country we are still a long way from such possibilities!

Francis Pott, a composer and pianist born in 1957, composed this commissioned work for the Silver Jubilee of the Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse, completing it in 2006. [Actually 2005.] It grew into a multi-faceted and complex work, for which he devised the structure himself, spending much time assembling his libretto from different sources: the Psalms, Holy Scripture, poems and prose by Thomas Traherne, William Blake, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, René Arcos and Odysseus Elytis, and then finally words from The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous mystical 14th-century text on the unknowable nature of God. This gave the complete work its title.

This composition originates as the response of a person still capable of compassion to the stark reality of the tragedy at the school in Beslan in September 2004, and to the wider cruelty which, since the start of the 21st century, our world has vindicated for itself on new pretexts (Bush’s ‘terrrrrism’). The voices of the choir become the lament of those frantic mothers, expanding into an outcry for peace in this world – a world over which a cloud of unknowing has been laid and which now mourns to itself.

The Prologue, the introductory organ solo, already makes plain that this is a large-scale composition: sombre, harmonically tortuous, inconsolable, it gives rise to the no less sombre entry of the chorus. Just as insistent are the interventions of the tenor soloist, persuasively projected with great vocal presence and expressive power, which portray human conscience. Moreover, all the interpreters are outstanding; Jeremy Filsell at the organ, the Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse (a model ensemble within the British choral tradition), and James Gilchrist, the soloist. The recording too is immaculate.

The work closes – conventionally before an Amen – with the plea of Jesus on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’, and in listening one cannot help thinking of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. In itself this testifies to the intensity and emotional power of the composition. It must be counted among the major works of the beginning of the 21st century, amounting as it does to a mirror image of the tragedy experienced by our times.

Its dedication includes the following inscription: ‘In memoriam: Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq’. Margaret Hassan was the care worker murdered in Iraq in November 2004 by persons unknown; her senseless death had triggered a powerful sense of shock. Such a dedication in itself tells us clearly enough that Pott’s outcry is an uncompromising indictment of our cruel, mad world, as he himself writes in the booklet: ‘…the sentiment behind it [is] one of personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn’.

Francis Pott is a humanist whose deeply compelling message must be heard.

Guy Wagner
Pizzicato Record Journal