New ways with the canticles

The London Festival of Contemporary Church Music does, as they say, what it says on the tin. A week-long celebration at St Pancras Parish Church, directed by Christopher Batchelor, it is now in its fifth year. It is a noble enterprise, and it was good to see it gain additional publicity through a broadcast of choral evensong in the regular Wednesday slot on Radio 3.

The two services I attended provided the opportunity of hearing works commissioned both for 2006 and for previous years. The first offering, at evensong on 7 May, was a remarkable setting of the canticles by Michael Finnissy. The English of the Book of Common Prayer was accompanied by passages from St Luke in Greek.

The Magnificat opened with two solo sopranos intoning a semitone apart, while the lower voices, entering in turn, shadowed the sopranos’ oscillations in Greek (the passage beginning “And Mary arose in those days…”). With the entry of the chorus sopranos, it was the inner parts that had the English text. The music was made up of sonorous blocks of sound, the texture varied by the juxtaposition of solo and chorus. The performance was immensely assured, and the one uncertain entry went off all right when the piece was repeated at the service broadcast three days later.

In the Nunc Dimittis, the basses were silent till the end of the doxology. Instead, a solo bass chanted the Greek (“And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon”) while the chorus sang a homophonic setting of the Prayer Book words, culminating in an “Amen” of rare beauty.

The service had begun with Roxanna Panufnik’s Ave Maria, written for women’s voices and featuring a four-note ostinato on the organ. The anthem was Surrexit Christus by Tarik O’Regan, full of syncopation and with peals of joyous “Alleluias”. Even more pleasure was gained from Christopher Batchelor’s chant for Psalm 55: hauntingly effective despite a surprisingly high reciting note.

The new commission for compline the following evening was an antiphon, Preserve us, O Lord, while waking, by Andrew McBirnie. The repetition of the opening phrase for solo tenor at the end provided a satisfying symmetry; equally pleasing was the repetition of the word “sleeping”. The antiphon sandwiched the Nunc Dimittis in a 2003 St Pancras commission by Antony Pitts. Unaccompanied, like the Finnissy, it consisted largely of phrases descending and ascending stepwise and treated in imitation. Apart from the taxing range of the soprano and bass lines, I should imagine it to be within the reach of a good amateur choir.

The compline hymn was Te lucis ante terminum, a St Pancras commission from 2005 by Paul Ayres. A setting of the Latin text alternated with harmonised plainchant in English. It was beautifully performed by Christopher Batchelor and his choir; though I was sorry to see that they omitted a section that required them to sing out of tune, and sorrier still that there was hardly anybody present to hear them.