Seventieth-birthday tribute to composer
Roderic Dunnett on a Philip Moore focus for a London festival

Philip Moore was still the organist of York Minster when I encountered a double cassette of his music a decade ago. It included more than two hours of choral music, and some organ music; and it struck me that every single piece – fresh, thoughtfully finessed, and frequently exploratory – was the work of a serious composer.

Now that Moore has handed over York’s gaping acoustic and famous Tuba Mirabilis to Robert Sharpe, this year’s London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, directed by Christopher Batchelor, has launched events with a striking, often ravishing 70th-birthday tribute devoted to Moore’s choral output.

Parts of Moore’s extensive œuvre were sung at St Pancras Church, the festival’s heart, with polish and tangible affection by the – here – eight-voice chamber choir Vox Turturis, under its music director Andrew Gant, lecturer in music at Oxford and choirmaster-composer at the Chapels Royal, St James’s Palace.

What emerged were, in the main, scintillating performances. Apart from the odd preponderant voice early on – a momentarily over-enthusiastic tenor or soprano rasp – the balances evolved as first-rate; phrasing, attack, and shaping blossomed, nursed by Gant’s elegant, expressive, helpful, and, above all, insightful conducting: a little distrait and like his old St John’s, Cambridge, mentor, George Guest; yet underneath pinpointed and needle-sharp.

It seems idle to dub Moore’s work “post-“ Howells, or Finzi, or Britten, or as “sounding here and there like Arvo Pärt” (it does and it doesn’t). Rather, Moore deploys a broad range of approaches tackling liturgical, sacred, or secular music (for the curious, there is even a concerto), and yet what feels like one internally reconciled, consistent personal manner.

With its astute polyphony, alluring parallelings, and canny angularity poached from the emotive impact of (say) diminished fifths, Moore’s music is often unmistakably his. You can hear this distinction, vitality, and refinement on two discs, including both organ and choral music, available from the mixed-voice Vasari Singers (Guild GMCD 7129) and more recently the Exon Singers (Regis REGCD 315), polished by Matthew Owens of Wells Cathedral.

Such quality characterised Moore’s two great composer-predecessors (three, if you include Tertius Noble), Edward Bairstow and the now nonagenarian Dr Francis Jackson. Yet Moore’s eloquence, and originality, stands up easily alongside theirs, and periodically eclipses both.

Eminent cathedral musicians are perhaps fewer than they once were. Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion, and John Sanders at Gloucester stand out – Dr James MacMillan runs a church choir. But other modern composers of English church music – William Mathias, Peter Maxwell Davies, Gabriel Jackson – were or are by no means typical organ-loft composers.

This is why Moore, apprentice to the great Allan Wicks at Canterbury and Barry Rose’s successor at Guildford, has some pre-eminence in the field. Here, we heard music for not just York, but the Edington Festival, and the Royal Maundy at Manchester Cathedral. Just as Bairstow penned the anthem Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent (we heard two admirable young Vox Turturis basses in it here) not for York, but for his then fiefdom, (the former) Leeds Parish Church.

Moore’s gripping Three Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, part-declamatory, with atmospheric, snaky counterpoint, proved as eloquent and expressive here as Three Oxford (perhaps Oxfordshire) Songs, with their wittily skedaddling finale. (Moore’s choice of William Shenstone, 1714-63, proves as inspired as Gerald Finzi’s garnering of Ralph Knevet in Farewell to Arms). One sensed the intelligence, the adroit and imaginative management of texts, and the musical nous with which Moore devises his always affecting, intermittently quiet, complex textures.

Moore sets solo work vividly against ensemble: witness the expressive soprano, then bass, soli welling up from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s evening invocation (all from Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press, 1971), after a lovely, serene cantor-like tenor opening. The Manchester piece, deliberately simpler, felt a bit wet, but there was a taut setting of Caedmon of Whitby for the consecration of Bishop Robert Ladds; semitonal effects in Salutatio angelico for a cappella double choir; strange (Arvo Pärt-like?) pauses, canonic patterings (at “Ecce ancilla Domini”) and the gorgeous use of alto 1 and 2 for the recapitulation (in “Ave Maria gratia plena”, a text that Peter Maxwell Davies long ago set with melting purity).

Moore’s carol arrangement Baby, Born Today, handled by Gant with equal insight and tender inner part detail, is a perfect gem. By sleight of hand, Moore can make a negro spiritual virtually morph into the sparest medieval music. In I Saw Him Standing (2004, setting a prayer by the 18th-century Welsh farmer’s wife Anne Griffiths, translated by Lord Williams), Moore contrives a marvellous arbour of musical patternings, with all the canniness and colouring of (say) Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Thank heavens this composer is not afraid to repeat words, so vital to the art. He makes his texts work. It is one element that gives Moore’s music its energy and stature.

We thus find ourselves with a composer on a par, in this genre at least, with MacMillan and Mathias, Henryk Górecki, perhaps even Pärt. Making a case for a composer’s work – a bit like offering a BAFTA fellowship – is precisely one of the things that Batchelor’s splendidly inventive and now indispensable festival – today embracing 24 venues across London (may Waltham Abbey and Tallis be next) – is there to achieve. This concert and tribute proved a hit.