A ‘Proms’ of Mass and canticle
by Roderic Dunnett

Since the demise of Norwich Cathedral’s Festival of Contemporary Church Music, the torch for encouraging the commissioning and performance of new church music has passed to the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, based at St Pancras Church under its versatile artistic director, Christopher Batchelor.

Now in its sixth year, the St Pancras festival enjoys support from such leading composers as Jonathan Dove, Michael Finnissy (whose St Pancras Canticles, a 2006 commission, were heard again during a midweek compline), Diana Burrell, Robert Saxton, and Michael Berkeley, whose vibrant setting of John Donne’s “At the Round Earth’s Imagin’d Corners”, with some exquisite solo writing, was performed during the closing choral evensong.

That broadcast event also included the world première of a 2007 festival commission, the Third Service by Gregory Rose, son of the late Dr Bernard Rose. Dr Rose’s own Service for Trebles also featured in a festival service at St Paul’s Cathedral, where his grandson is currently a chorister.

Gregory Rose’s new Evening Canticles proved a fascinating, strikingly imaginative setting. The Magnificat launches like a dazzling aubade, or dawn chorus — as enraptured as his father’s “Feast Song for St Cecilia” (for which Gregory himself was the librettist).

There is plenty of terse, brisk, brightly coloured counterpoint with a modern tinge; lovely paired writing for upper, lower, or inner voices; and some sensational somersaulting decorations in the gloria for a high-ish soprano solo, revived in a lark-like solo passage, imitated by tenor, in the Gloria of the restrained Nunc Dimittis.

The St Pancras choir acquitted itself admirably in this burgeoning setting, and the reprise of the Nunc Dimittis’s opening words at its close proved particularly bewitching. Here is a composer steeped in musical Modernism, who can produce brilliant colours, passionate sounds, and wonderful effects from the human voice.
Gregory Rose’s much admired polyphonic Latin Mass for St Paul’s, the Missa Sancta Pauli Apostoli, which won a British Composers’ Award in 2006, was also sung at a choral eucharist early in the festival week.

Just as Michael Nicholas made Norwich Cathedral pioneers in performing the music of Gorecki and the Estonians Pärt and Tüür, so Batchelor has programmed music by Sven-David Sandström and Dobrinka Tabakova (in a concert by the choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge). Given the imaginative range and span of the music performed over a packed nine days, the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music must now rank as a church equivalent of the BBC Proms.

A substantial programme of music by a former BBC producer, Antony Pitts, included the première of his motet cycle based on the “I am” sayings of Jesus, including “I am the True Vine” (also set by Arvo Pärt). It was sung by the outstanding and award-winning choir Tonus Peregrinus, of which the composer is the thoughtful conductor.
Also heard were the beautifully sculpted Second Evening Canticles by Judith Bingham; Roxanna Panufnik’s Mass composed for Westminster Cathedral; and the Missa Dolce by Philippe Mazé (b. 1954), a French composer whose sacred output includes some 100 motets, 20 Masses, and other liturgical works.

Several difficult or exposed leads in a collection of sacred anthems by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, some acerbic in texture, were skilfully negotiated by the choir of Univer-sity College, under Charles Peebles; the final alleluias to “O Verbum Patris” provided an especially magical conclusion. The most beguiling was “A Hoy Calendar”, a setting of verses by George Mackay Brown. It also underlined, however, the fact that audiences must be furnished with the texts for such music if they are to savour them to the full.

Other composers whose anthems were heard during the week included Richard Causton, Andrew McBirnie, Phillip Neil Martin, Hugh Collins Rice, James Weeks, Ryan Wigglesworth, and Howard Skempton (whose serene setting of “Locus iste” was another 2007 festival commission, on his 60th birthday). Both Christopher Batchelor’s compline anthem “Te lucis ante terminum” and “Give rest, O Lord” by Elizabeth Winters were 2007 commissions; and no fewer than three sets of modern Responses, by David Buckley, Simon Brown, and Paul Ayres, were also featured.
It was good that W. H. Auden’s centenary and William Blake’s 250th anniversary were both celebrated, the former with a collection of cabaret and other songs, and the latter with new Blake settings by Mike Westbrook, in an evening event including accordion, violin, and piano.