Audiophile Audition, August 2013
A spectacularly rendered disc of some gorgeous and exceptionally moving music reflecting on loss.
More Jackson—he just keeps on a comin’. This time my curiosity was really peaked, as this is his Requiem, maybe the most revered choral form in all of music, and certainly one that has seen more than its share of masterpieces. Would this be innovative and extraordinary, a product of Jackson’s fevered imagination? Would it surpass Faure and Durufle? Well, no. It falls into a very broad category of current Anglican-inspired yet peppered with eastern poetry works that seem to litter the landscape these days. Far too often these become cliché and sentimental death-denials that try to obliterate the very real concern of those departed and of all of us who will, one day, be joining them. Jackson has chosen the route of optimism, not one that concentrates on us the living, though there is that element, but one that believes fervently in the reality of a better life to come, one that follows connectedly to this one. In it he has interpolated English text segments from other non-Christian religions in the “even” numbered spots of the traditional Requiem Mass. In doing so he has created a work of exquisite beauty and luminous choral sound that brings you to tears in several instances and constantly soothes the spirit while giving that rarity found these days in art of any kind—hope.
Two other antiphons follow: In all his works was written as tribute to organist and chorus master at Canterbury Cathedral Allan Wicks, a man who influenced both Jackson and conductor Backhouse. The pithy and terribly moving I am the voice of the wind was written by a thirteen year-old girl, Geraldine Atkinson, who, after recently receiving qualifications as a doctor, died suddenly on holiday at the age of 24. How she penned these words at that tender age, or what inspired her, may never be known:I am the voice of the wind on your cheek, I am the warmth of fire between fingers, I am the smell of spring in the air, I am the stars to lead you home, I am the echoes in the caves of loneliness, I am the rain to cool your skin, I may be gone from this life my friend, But remember I am not yet dead.
Her parents, Chris and Elizabeth (a member of Vasari) commissioned this highly-moving work.
Bob Chilcott has taken the ubiquitous Canon of Pachelbel and turned it into a vehicle for Oscar Wilde’s medieval-styled poem Requiescat. I never thought to hear the Canon in any form that could erase the plethora of aberrant usages it has found in film and TV, but this once does it, recapturing the loveliness and wonder we all thought when first we heard it. John Tavener’s Song for Athene is a modern day choral classic, and rightly so, achieving immense popularity after it was sung in the recession for Princess Diana’s funeral years ago. And When David heard, King David’s Biblical lament of the death of Absalom, Francis Pott gives a wink and a nod to the music of the seventeenth century, especially Thomas Tomkins, in a piece of great strength and intense emotion.
The Vasari Singers are one of the finest professional chamber choirs in Great Britain, having existed since 1980, and have an extensive discography. The 31 singers are exemplary in their dedication to music new and old, and display a fine tonal quality of exceptional intonation and technical ability. The Tonbridge School Chapel in Kent provides a marvelous quality capture in full in a recording of audiophile quality.
Gramophone, December 2012
Radiant Vasari Singers
Requiem masses written since 9/11 go easy on the Dies irae: do you need to hear the day of wrath when you’ve already seen it? So Faure’s consolling Requiem is the logical model for Gabriel Jackson’s 2008 seven-movement Requiem for unaccompanied chorus, which asks the listener to make friends with death without fear or an unpleasant, or non-existent afterlife. As with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the Latin mass for the dead is augmented with other poets, from Kevin Gilbert, to Mohican Chief Aupumut.
The music feels as spontaneously descriptive as Eric Whitacre’s, though without the quick onset of diminishing returns. Even when invitingly mellifluous, Jackson’s Requiem has ill-fitting components that create question-provoking poetic collages. What do the eccentric rhythms mean in the second movement Epitaph? Why are half-spoken words in simultaneous counterpoint to sung ones in Autumn wind of eve? Jackson sometimes looks back to Ligeti as a swarm-effect to long-breathed melodic lines.
Meaning can be constantly reinterpreted, through his use of syncopation is a straightforward vehicle of joy. But with such an articulate gift for melody, Jackson oddly chose to have the Aupumut verse in the lux aeterna spoken rather than sung. So much of the piece achieves a solid marriage of artifice and content that breaking the artifice with homily is disconcerting.
The rest of the disc is all over the map. Jackson’s 2010 I am the voice of the wind is one of his most deeply felt pieces, using Ligetian swarms even more effectively than the Requiem. Francis Pott’s 2008 When David Heard depicts the grief of Biblical King David over the death of his son Absalom so eventfully, it’s a short choral opera. But Bob Chilcott’s 2007 feelgood Rosa Mystica (based on Pachebel’s Canon) and John Tavener’s sternly devotional 1993 Song for Athen feel temperamentally out of place.
Performances under Jeremy Backhouse meet the formidable challenges without audible strain, never shrinking away from the music’s intense emotional content. But his radiant Vasari Singers could have been better served by the recording engineers, who prefer hazy treble-heavy choral aura to important details.
David Patrick Stearns
BBC Music Magazine, December 2012
relish the sheer accomplishment and virtuosity of the Vasari Singers
Soft, consolatory, warmly glowing: that’s the atmosphere created by Gabriel Jackson in the opening movement of his Requiem. ‘Radiantly optimistic’ is Jackson’s own way of describing the work, reflecting a belief that death is ‘the gateway to a better world’.
You don’t have to believe that to relish the sheef accomplishment and virtuosity of the Vasari Singers’ perfomance. The Requiem’s ‘Epitaph’, setting a Kevin Gilbert poem, would test most choirs to the maximum, with its rapid decoration of monodic theme-threads, slides stutter-rhythms, and what Jackson calls a ‘pantheistic susurration of nature-sounds’ burbling hyperactively. The Vasaris breast the difficulties confidently, crucially maintaining a full modicum of pose and tonal balance in the process. The spoken voice-over in part of the Lux aeterna made me cringe a little, but may work better for others.
Of the shorter pieces I especially enjoyed Francis Pott’s When David Heard, an intence, grief-wracked setting of the Old Testament text mourning the death of Absalom. Here the raw, lacerating emotions of personal loss are laid bare for the listener, in searing harmonies and tight, tensely contesting intervals. The Vasari Singers grip the work with evident relish and commitment, producing the CD’s most potently arresting performance.
Choir and Organ, October 2012
CD of the month October 2012 – Vasari Singers perform this music as to the manor born
Built around the theme of loss, this contemplative programme provides an unusually uplifting, even positive, experience. While Jackson’s requiem is the most substantial composition (it was commissioned by the group and the recording celebrates the composer’s 50th birthday), the smaller items by him, Tavener and Pott make their own significant impact, whil Chilcott’s arrangement of Pachebel’s canon is far from a saccharine reworking using a text by Oscar Wilde. Backhouse and his Vasari Singers perform this music to the manner born, with gorgeous tone that rejoices in the rich harmonies and fluid part-writing. Pott’s Tomkins-inspired When David Heard is a particularly effective reading, but it is to Jackson’s Requiem that this listener will return. Once again, Naxos are to be congratulated for their support of British contemporary choral music.
While personal loss lies at the heart of this new collection from the ever admirable Vasari Singers, it is predominantly a superb celebration of life and love. Taking Gabriel Jackson’s thickly textured Requiem as a starting point, it includes two other moving memorial pieces by him – In All His Works, written for Allan Wicks, the inspirational former master of the choristers at Canterbury, and I Am the Voice of the Wind, a tender setting of words by Geraldine Atkinson, the daughter of a Vasari member, who died suddenly in 2009. Always ready to commission and perform new work, this choir grows in stature with each new recording.
International Record Review, October 2012
Jackson’s requiem is a masterpiece in my view, and the performance from the Vasari Singers and Jeremy Backhouse is beyond praise
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.
The Northern Echo, 18th October 2012
The Vasari Singers present Gabriel Jackson’s Requiem. It is a work combining traditional solemnity with poems, which embrace wideranging spirituality. This contrasts with the poignancy of works by John Tavener and Francis Pott. These moving performances come highly recommended.