Album Review

Posted: Monday 1st October 2012
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Gabriel Jackson: Requiem – International Record Review

The multi-voiced fortissimo passage in Tavener’s Song for Athene is a stunning coupe de theatre whos shock value inevitably wears off if one hears it too often. This performance by the superb Vasari Singers is very fine, though the static intensity of the Westminster Abbey Choir is even more striking. Bob Chilcott’s adaptation of Pachelbel’s Canon for choir and guitar provides a pretty vehicle for Oscar Wilde’s Requiescat. When David Heard is a 12-minute setting of words, adpated from the Second Book of Samuel, describing King David’s grief as he learns of the death of his son Absolom. Francis Pott’s music is further evidence of this composer’s vivid and unusual aural imagination, as well as his dramatic sense. This is the first recording of this beautiful work.

The rest of the disc is devoted to Gabriel Jackson, whose music, on Delphian, elicited an IRR Outstanding Recording from me in July issue. I wrote that the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh seemed ‘almost possessed by’ Jackson’s music. I can’t go quite so far in respect of the Vasari performance of In all his works, a profoundly touching tribute to Alan Wicks, under whose direction Jackson sang as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, but the performance has other qualities and taken on its own terms does not disappoint. The Naxos disc was recorded before the Delphian, so the claim that this is a world premiere recording is technically correct, and the two other works also seem to be appearing on disc for the first time.

I am the voice of the wind was commissioned by a member of the Vasari Singers in memory of a daughter who died cruelly young. The composer’s ability to find a musical idea apposite to the subject is in evidence here, in this case a fluttering repeated figure in the sopranos that accompanies much of the piece. Textures are clean and pierced through with light, in line with the composer’s intention to write a work as celebratory as it is memorialising.

The opening, chant-like figure, and the consoling harmonies that follow, suggest a conventional treatment of the Requiem text, but the truth is otherwise. At ‘Te decet hymnus’, not four minutes in, we hear more of Jackson’s innovative accompanying figures, and when the prayer for perpetual light returns, it has become an impassioned cry. Jackson follows the example set by Britten half a century ago in the War Requiem by interpolating non-liturgical texts. In the second movement it is a poem by the Aboringe poet Kevin Gilbert, where we hear that our deceased loved ones stay with us ‘in the quiet moments in the trees, amidst the rocks, the cloud and beams of sunshine’. I’ve never been able to find consolation in ideas such as this, but Jackson’s setting is deeply affecting, notable for vocal effects that acknowledge, without a trace of artifice, the origin of the words. Humour rarely surfaces in Requiem settings, but Jackson’s music often surprises, and his treatment of an elliptical Japanese poem will surely provoke a smile.

A soloist later sings some words from Whitman: balancing this against the constant moving choral accompaniment must, I think, be a conductor’s nightmare. On a disc where the solo singing is uniformly excellent, it is unfair to cite an individual, but Matthew Wood’s singing here is a marvellous blend of implacable poise and vocal beauty. Whitman and the ‘Benedictus’ are fused seamlessly into one, building up to a climax for which the word ecstatic is inadequate. A Tagor setting is simply ravishing, and in the closing ‘Lux aeterna’, Jackson interpolates some words from a Mohican Chief. These are not sung, however, and the first time I heard the work the use of a speaking voice seemed to me a failure of nerve on the composer’s part. Now, after several hearings, it is less troubling, the defiance of the words ‘die like a hero going home’ clearly present in the music that follows, and also in the final, staccato articulation of the word ‘Requiem’.

The recording is close and vivid, and the accompanying material – sung texts, English translations and notes from Jackson, Pott and the Conductor – is generous.

Jackson’s requiem is a masterpiece in my view, and the performance from the Vasari Singers and Jeremy Backhouse is beyond praise. If the fire burns a little less brightly in the rest of the programme, this is probably inevitable, and is certainly no reason to let this outstanding disc pass you by.

William Hedley
International Record Review