Under the shadow of His wing – Concert Review

Falls the eventide

Posted: 14 Nov 2014 @ 00:18

Roderic Dunnett hears a work of 16 pieces

IN ACHIEVING its prime aural intention – to be performed in “a large space with a matching acoustic”, using antiphonal effects so as to “wrap the audience in the acoustic experience” – Jonathan Rathbone’s new cantata Under the Shadow of His Wing can be pronounced a total success.

Rathbone, a former chorister of Coventry Cathedral, was musical director of the Swingle Singers. His gift not just for arranging but also composing fresh works on sacred texts has long been demonstrated. That this new sequence – its working title was “Vasari Vespers”, and he has set texts familiar from the evening Offices – came across so well was due not least to his continuing links to the choir Vasari Singers, who commissioned it, and whose founder and artistic director, Jeremy Backhouse, drew a peripatetic performance that was compelling, resonant, and varied in texture.

The other hero was St Alban’s, Holborn, in London – packed for this occasion. I had forgotten how warmly responsive the church’s acoustic is: a kind of surround-sound effect predominates: we were enveloped, and entranced.

The 16 movements (any can be extracted: Peters Edition has already published a vocal score) include settings of the evening canticles, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the former notable for the excited, thrown-rhythm skedaddling of the young Mary, the latter for its basses – an expressive upper-bass quasi-solo effect from the Vasari Singers at the start, and some superb low bass singing throughout.

One possible drawback is a glut of predominantly slow movements (“O nata Lux”, with a chordal slight sentimentality that Tallis patently eschews, was one; the same applied to “Now that the Sun hath veiled his light”, whose lusher chordings call to mind, say, Górecki’s widely performed “Totus tuus‘). Where Rathbone writes homophonically, and without specific word-painting, the music only sporadically amplifies or explores the text. But when he sets solo lines for a semichorus, refining the textures as he does later in the work, the effect can be magical.

This new purity of writing surfaces first in a sequence for eight solo voices, in Rathbone’s elegant setting of the poem “Upon a Quiet Conscience”. Attributed to King Charles I, but possibly by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), “Close thine eyes and sleep secure” is one of the serenest offerings from, if not the golden age, the silver age of English poetry. Rathbone achieves variety by alternating Latin and English texts, and thus he achieves wondrous effects with “Christe qui lux es et dies“, a Crux fidelis-like plainsong melody gradually shifted upwards.

One could cite other instances where these aerated textures worked to advantage: “In pace, in idipsum“, a soporific Psalm text that really does slumber; some beguiling false relation; unexpected chromatic shifts; haunting alleluias. Likewise, “Blessed is the Man”, an evocative concoction from the first three Psalms; or some clever and original harmonisation of the kind that Rathbone excels at for the 11th section, which sets Bishop Ken’s “Glory to thee, my God, this night”: there is an attractive energy to Rathbone’s setting of the fifth verse, “When in the night I sleepless lie”.

This is contrasted beautifully with an almost neo-Baroque feel to John Fletcher’s poem “Care-charming sleep”. Here, exquisite imagery, stylishly cadenced, reflects Fletcher’s spanning of the Elizabethan-Jacobean divide. Ken reappears (“But though sleep o’er my frailty reigns . . .”), but is eclipsed in the same penultimate section by the lovely compline line “Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of thine eye”: at one point, the altos seem to descant above the sopranos, one of several effects that make this one of Rathbone’s highly affective touches.

If it would take a miracle to match Charles Wood’s “Hail, gladdening Light”, Rathbone has a good try. There is some thunderous antiphonal writing, for which Backhouse drew the very best from his singers; the ending was as impressive as one could wish.

© Jeremy Backhouse