World Premiere of Francis Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing
London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, Saturday 13th May 2006
The Times – 16th May 2006
One sometimes writes, hyperbolically, of a performance moving one to tears. But at the end of Francis Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing, genuine tears were shed. In part that was due to the circumstances. This 80-minute oratorio for choir, tenor and organ was written in response to the wars and atrocities of the past five years, and specifically to the July 7 bombings in London.
What’s more, it was being given its premiere (in the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music) at St Pancras Church, close to where many were caught by the bus blast. And if memories of that day were not sharp enough in Londoners’ minds, the unscripted wail of police sirens during the quiet final pages of Saturday’s performance, subliminally reminded us that the cycle of hate and violence goes on and on.
That, and a heartfelt plea for reconciliation and tolerance, is very much the theme of Pott’s oratorio. But the work is far from being simplistic peace propaganda. The 48-year-old draws his texts from the psalms, war poets, Blake and other visionary writers, and a mystical medieval tract. These are arranged in such a way that mankind’s instinctive tendency to lash out at enemies or perceived enemies is continually, and often ironically, contrasted with individual man’s capacity for heroism and self-sacrifice, as epitomised by the Crucifixion.
Often the tenor (James Gilchrist, superb) takes the part of human conscience, crying in vain against the chorus’s war-cries. But in the glorious epilogue it is the chorus that calls for a “blind stirring of love”, in a stupendous outburst of rich polyphony – wave upon wave, gloriously sustained.
Pott’s musical style is tonally-based, perhaps a little unvaried in texture and articulation, but richly chromatic and laced with telling dissonance. It is also thoroughly grounded in the English oratorio tradition, with reminiscences of Elgar, Walton and Tippett – though some exotic passages in the huge organ part (wonderfully delivered by Jeremy Filsell) sound closer to Messiaen.
Any choir would find the piece a challenge, not least to its stamina. But Jeremy Backhouse’s excellent Vasari Singers performed it not just accurately, but with bags of heart and soul as well. A sincere, intelligent and admirably unsensational meditation on the darkness at the heart of man, The Cloud of Unknowing deserves a concert life beyond this moving performance.
Church Times – 2nd June 2006
Apt choice of texts for an Armageddon
Roderic Dunnett enjoys both choir and organ in a new oratorio.
The icing on the cake at the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music was Francis Pott’s new oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing.
Despite his musical CV as a former scholar of Winchester College and Cambridge, and the composer of A Song on the End of the World (the Elgar Commission of the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1999), Pott has in the past put me off by his programme notes, which seem mostly unintelligible. When I arrived at St Pancras church however, I could not have been more richly rewarded.
The programme notes were ghastly, but the work wasn’t. It was a beautifully conceived, thrilling oratorio, skilfully collated, and drawing together a number of texts – not just the 15th-century Midlands text of the title, but apt passages of the Psalms, Traherne, Wilfred Owen (largely prose, not verse), the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, and two long extracts from a poem on the 1945 Albanian campaign by a sensitive writer, a favourite of Pott, the modern Greek poet Odysseus Elytis. His verse seems as incisive, expressive, and agonised as Lorca’s.
The performance, sensitive and nuanced, was by the Vasari Singers conducted by Jeremy Backhouse. They had no difficulty in confirming that they are one of the most accomplished choirs in the country today.
The early stages of the work, extracted from the famous passage in Revelation about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, were as chilling as Franz Schmidt’s remarkable setting of the same words (in The Book of the Seven Seals) almost 75 years ago: Pott does, indeed, evoke something of a “musical Armageddon”, much in the spirit of the powerful climaxes of his massive work for organ Christus.
The persevering organist of the Signum recording (SIGCD 062) of Christus was Jeremy Filsell, and he was once again outstanding. The Cloud of Unknowing has an equally challenging, taxing organ part, which calls for as much of a virtuoso as, say, the glorious Fantasia on ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, first recorded by Allan Wicks, and which Filsell himself should surely now record.
The impressive management of dynamic and emotional transition effected by Francis Pott, both in his design and his increasingly skilled orchestration, picked this out as a gratifying new work. The tenor soloist – the work calls for just one main solo role – was James Gilchrist. It was perfect casting. Gilchrist is the right artist with the right kind of voice for these mighty apocalyptic outbursts. We quaked in our seats, and the rafters rattled.
There are plans to record The Cloud of Unknowing, and that is as it should be. But other choral societies should also look carefully at this work – a useful option financially; for even the lowliest can afford to hire one good tenor soloist; and, Deo volente, some may even have one in their ranks.
Rachel North’s blog
This is an extract from a blog written by one of the London bombings survivors, Rachel North, who attended the World Premiere.
I was going to write more last weekend, but I was shattered after a devastating world premiere of the magnificent Francis Pott’s new work, The Cloud of Unknowing, which absolutely blew me sideways. Francis, who sometimes reads this blog, very kindly invited me and Gill, another survivor, and our partners along to hear the work, performed by the Vasari Singers. Sacred choral music about the evils of war and terrorism. The first live music I have listened to since the bomb. Harrowing, exhilarating, bleak and horrifying, it was simultaneously one of the hardest things and one of the most beautiful things I have ever listened to. Like being crucified by angels. It was performed in St. Pancras church, which became a centre for grief and reflection after July 7th and where Kings Cross United placed their flowers on the 6 month anniversary.