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Alec Roth: Shared Ground / Skidmore, Ex Cathedra

Honore / Skidmore
Release Date: 01/31/2012 
Label:  Signum Classics   Catalog #: 270  
Composer:  Alec Roth
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ex Cathedra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Important and stimulating music in excellent and committed performances.

In January 2010 I attended one of a series of concerts presented in Birmingham by Ex Cathedra to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. This particular concert featured a cappella choral pieces in forty parts and included works by Alessandro Striggio, Thomas Tallis and Gabriel Jackson. Also on the programme was Earthrise by Alec Roth, commissioned for the occasion and receiving its first performance. I was greatly impressed at a first hearing and, reviewing the concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, I concluded by saying “I’m impatient to hear it again”. Well now, with this disc the opportunity has come and with it the
Read more chance to evaluate the piece at more than a single hearing.

Having had that opportunity I’m firmly of the view that Earthrise is a very fine work indeed. My initial impressions were confirmed but there’s no substitute for hearing a work several times. In brief, the commission from Ex Cathedra, which arrived in 2009, coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and gave Roth his inspiration. Earthrise is divided into three sections and is scored for unaccompanied choir, divided into forty parts. (I haven’t seen a score but I suspect that the full division into forty parts is not achieved all the time.) The texts that Alec Roth has set - in Latin - are drawn from the Psalms, and the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Job and Proverbs. In addition the work begins with a setting of one of the Advent Great ‘O’ Antiphons and another of the Antiphons, reprising material from the first setting, is heard at the very end.

It seems to me that Roth has selected some wonderful, rich texts and, having done so, that he has set the words in a way that emphasises their potency and which brings out the powerful imagery in the texts. I was greatly impressed by the sense of space and awe that Roth brings to the second section, entitled ‘Contemplation of The Earth Seen from Space’. Even better in some ways is the final section, ‘A Plea For True Wisdom And Understanding. This is the most extensive movement and the bulk of it is a setting of words from the Book of Proverbs. I suspect that it’s here, above all, that the music divides into forty parts; certainly the musical texture is the richest we’ve heard in the whole piece. For quite a lot of the time the main idea is a slow hymn-like melody, which proceeds slowly and serenely. Round the hymn other sections of the choir sing decorative scalic figures. This rather put me in mind of the finale of the Second Symphony of Sibelius; Roth’s music has a comparable sense of majesty but it also has a grave beauty which, when combined with the words he has selected, is very moving.

It is intelligent planning to follow Earthrise with Hymn to Gaia because for the ancient Greeks Gaia was the Earth goddess. Actually, the piece comprises two hymns. As well as an adult choir Roth involves a children’s choir. The adults sing the hymns, in harmony and in the original Greek, while the children sing, simultaneously and in unison, an English translation. The music for the children is not straightforward, I suspect, but if I may say so Roth’s work seems to be an object lesson in how to expose young musicians to contemporary music and involve them in its performance in a way that challenges them and yet is not impossibly daunting. Ex Cathedra, with its well-established Academy for younger singers, is perfectly equipped to perform this interesting work.

The whole of the second disc fits together on several levels. Over the last four years Alec Roth has collaborated on several projects with the distinguished author Vikram Seth (b. 1952). In fact Seth has just published a book, The Rivered Earth (Penguin, 2011), which describes their collaborations, includes the libretti for all their joint works and contains an account by Seth of “the pleasures and pains of working with a composer.” A disc that included two of the earlier Seth/Roth collaborations was reviewed by the late Bob Briggs in October 2008. Bob was impressed by the music on that disc and I fancy he would have relished these pieces also. He described Roth’s music as “music of strength, originality and sensuality” and he went on to say that “Roth’s is a true original English voice.” I hadn’t read those words until after I’d finished listening to these new discs but I think the music bears out Bob’s judgement.

Common to that disc and to this one is the violinist Philippe Honoré who, I now learn, is the dedicatee of Seth’s acclaimed novel, An Equal Music. Here he plays Alec Roth’s five-movement Partita for solo violin, Ponticelli (‘little bridges’).

Here we come to the other person who binds this second disc together: the English poet, George Herbert. As a boy in India, Vikram Seth first encountered Herbert’s poetry and gradually he came to know it much better and to love it. As he writes in the booklet notes, in 2003 he acquired the very house, near Salisbury, where George Herbert lived from 1630 until his death in 1633. The grounds of the house include five little bridges - hence the title of the violin work. In 2007, Seth, who was in India at the time, wrote the six poems that Alec Roth sets in Shared Ground. Indeed, during Seth’s absence Roth was staying in his house - Herbert’s former abode - and he wrote the music at that time. Seth says of the poems: “Though the mood and spirit of these verses are my own, they are formally modelled on [specific] poems by Herbert.” Fascinatingly, Alec Roth has so designed Shared Ground and Ponticelli that the two works, though independent compositions, can be played together, in which case the first movement of the choral work is followed by the first movement of Ponticelli and so on. Though the works are treated separately on this CD Signum include in the booklet a note explaining how you can programme your CD player to combine the two works in this way: it works very well and makes for intriguing listening.

There’s some very fine choral writing in Shared Ground. Once again Alec Roth proves his ability to respond acutely to words in the music that he writes. He also displays a seemingly intuitive understanding of how to write for voices - there’s always clarity in the textures though they are often very rich. I must confess that I don’t yet understand all of Vikram Seth’s poetic imagery, especially the words of the sixth and final poem, entitled ‘This’. It’s in this movement that Roth’s music is the most complex and texturally rich in the whole work. There’s some very beautiful homophonic choral writing in the first two settings while the fifth is the most energetic. Perhaps the most remarkable movement is the fourth one, ‘Host’. In this, if I interpret the poetry correctly, Seth describes his decision to buy George Herbert’s former house. As an appendix, if you will, he adds to the end of the poem an inscription, by Herbert, that is carved on a stone in the north wall of the house. This is sung by the choir; previously in the setting, the role of the choir has been largely to provide support for a tenor soloist - the excellent Samuel Boden. As I listened I thought more and more of Vaughan Williams’ wonderful ‘Love bade me welcome’ from his Five Mystical Songs and I’ve since realised that this is the very Herbert poem that Seth had taken for his model in writing this particular poem. I should hasten to say that Roth’s setting is no pastiche of RVW’s; if anything, perhaps it’s a homage. But I think this, above all, supports Bob Brigg’s contention that Roth’s is a true English voice.

Is ‘Host’ a homage to Vaughan Williams? I don’t know. Nor do I know if Ponticelli is a homage to Bach but there seems to me to be more than a nod in the direction of Bach’s solo violin partitas. The first movement, in addition, seemed to me to have in the writing a whiff of an Indian raga; is this a compliment to Vikram Seth? The second movement is a songful, meditative soliloquy while the central movement consists of slow, searching music of no little depth. Here, I think, is real Bachian gravitas. The fifth and final movement is the longest and the most varied though, thematically, it remains tightly organised. Here, in particular, the writing makes significant demands on the soloist’s virtuosity but Philippe Honoré is equal to all these demands. Whether heard alone or in combination with Shared Ground it seems to me that Ponticelli is a most interesting piece.

The disc concludes with a setting for choir of a Herbert poem but The Flower is not included just as a filler. Not only is it a lovely setting in its own right; Roth used the thematic material in the second movement of Ponticelli.

There’s a lot of important and stimulating music here - all recorded for the first time - and, without exception, the performances are fully worthy of the music. Jeffrey Skidmore and his excellent singers clearly believe in Alec Roth’s music and not only do their performances demonstrate very high standards of singing, they also radiate conviction. I’m sure the composer must be thrilled with the advocacy that his music receives here. The recorded sound is excellent and the documentation is very good. I hope these recordings will disseminate Alec Roth’s music to a wide audience.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International

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Works on This Recording

Earthrise by Alec Roth
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ex Cathedra
Hymn to Gaia by Alec Roth
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ex Cathedra
Shared Ground by Alec Roth
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ex Cathedra
Ponticelli by Alec Roth
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ex Cathedra
The Flower by Alec Roth
Conductor:  Jeffrey Skidmore
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ex Cathedra

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