Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Many beautiful moments in David Owen Norris’ Oratorio ‘Prayerbook’

David Owen Norris (b.1953) www.davidowennorris.com will be known to most people as a pianist and broadcaster. What may be less well known are his compositions.

His works include his popular Folksong settings which were broadcast on Radio 3, A Small Dragon for soprano, clarinet and piano, commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council, settings of Poems by Roger McGough, a community cantata Interruption at the Opera House, written for the Petworth Festival, Benedicite, for children, which was broadcast in 1990 on Radio 4’s Morning Service, and Die! Sober Flirter, a radio-opera, commissioned by the BBC in 1991 for the Mozart year.

More recently there has been his second radio-opera, The Jolly Roger, premiered in November 2008, Think only this, a song-cycle for tenor, cello and piano, (premiered and recorded by Philip Langridge), Tomorrow nor Yesterday a song-cycle for tenor and piano to poems by John Donne, premiered in 2006, a Piano Concerto in C premiered in May 2008 at the English Music Festival and a number of piano pieces including a set of variations Play on.

In 2006, the Oxford Bach Choir under Nicholas Cleobury premiered David Owen Norris’ oratorio Prayerbook at the first English Music Festival.  At over 70 minutes long this work, a setting of words from the Book of Common Prayer, and writings as diverse as St Basil, Bernard of Morlaix and  the formerly Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, is about Tradition and Change. The setting is unusual in that it calls for a choir, choristers, close harmony group, baritone, two sopranos, organ and string quartet as well as three trombones, trumpet, timpani, tubular bells, cymbals and hand-chimes.

EM Records www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk/emrecords.html have now issued a recording of Prayerbook with the Waynflete Singers, the Choristers of New College Oxford, the Navarra String Quartet, and close harmony group Over the Bridge, with David Coram (organ), Peter Savidge (baritone) and sopranos Fiona Hymns and Lauren Fowler. Prayerbook is in three parts. Part I: Faith, Part II: Hope and Part III: Charity.

This work grew on me after a couple of hearings and certainly the opening Prelude with trombones, organ and later string quartet certainly attracts the attention. Towards the end, the strings provide a particularly attractive and haunting tune, the section ending with solo violin and organ.

Preface opens with a setting from the Book of Common Prayer sung by the chorus and Peter Savidge (baritone) with organ accompaniment. The baritone is later joined by the two sopranos Fiona Hymns and Lauren Fowler. This is in the form of a recitative with words that don’t really lend themselves easily to such treatment, but by varying the setting it works quite well.

In the section entitled Aria there is a repetitive setting of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins’ words ‘I have become involved in many arguments’ with baritone and string quartet. The returning repeats do add an appropriate hammering out of the theme. The Litany, with baritone, chorus, organ and trumpet, makes for an effective setting with the close harmony group, Over-the-Bridge, that includes two countertenors, tenor and bass, joining on the words ‘From fornication and all other deadly sin’ makes for a lighter, even comic, setting. However the section builds to a climax with timpani on the words ‘Good Lord, deliver us.’  There is a rich baritone setting of the words ‘Brethren, be sober, be vigilant’ that draws The Litany to a close.

David Owen Norris, like many other composers before, uses Bach-like chorales within this work. The hymn Oh God our help in ages past is set in a variety of arrangements for each verse. The third verse, with Over-the-Bridge doesn’t quite work for me being rather shrill, but there is a grand finale using all instruments.

Part II opens with God the Son, an extended organ fugue that, following the hymn, sounds very much like variations on the same tune. As this builds it’s a terrific piece leading directly to Collect, a setting of ‘Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel’ for chorus. The following setting of ‘Lighten our Darkness’ from the Book of Common Prayer has the chorus responding to the baritone as in Anglican services.

I would imagine that Calypso represents the more modern form of worship in this Oratorio about Tradition and Change. It is a rhythmic, repetitive section sung by the choristers and female voices, with a layering of the repeated words ‘Hail Gladdening Light.’

Advertisement is another setting from the Book of Common Prayer with also words by John Keble and features the baritone and chorus again making responses before the organ announces a baritone solo. David Owen Norris knows how to bring a timeless quality to much of his writing. Half way through the string quartet joins, with solo baritone after a return of the organ the lively strings return before the hymn like ‘Lord be thy Word, my Rule’ for choir and organ.

Rubric is a lovely piece with choral sounds that evoke the English country church or cathedral. Sung by the chorus this is a highly effective setting of ‘In Quires and Places where they sing.’ Over-the-Bridge join at one point and, very beautifully a soprano. Despite my reservations about the close harmony group this is, nevertheless, quite a memorable section. With The Last Trump the solo baritone enters with the hymn ‘Personent hodie’ before chorus and organ, reinforced with trombones and then tubular bells, join in. Over-the-Bridge joins to provide an effective lighter version of the last verse.

Part III commences with an Interlude: God the Holy Ghost for string quartet and organ, an extremely unusual and effective piece that gives an appropriately ethereal quality to the music. A richly evocative arrangement of the hymn tune Penlan for string quartet follows with Canon then featuring organ then chorus.

Aria opens with strident sounds from the string quartet before the baritone joins in this setting of words by David Jenkins, beginning with the words ‘When I want God to be near.’ The strings soon cease and the organ joins. This is an austere setting that warms as the quartet again joins at the end.

Amor is a setting of the hymn ‘Love Divine, all loves excelling’ but to a tune I didn’t know, first for soprano and organ, then chorus before the trumpet joins. Chorus and organ and trumpet make for a stirring climax. The Double Fugue sung by Over-the-Bridge, the close harmony group, is a round like double fugue setting of ‘A man may not marry his grandfather’s wife etc.’ and is an entertaining and humorous section. 
Opening quietly on organ with chorus, Chaconne, a setting of St Paul’s ‘For our knowledge is imperfect...’  it builds to a tremendous climax for timpani, organ and chorus before quietening for ‘Now we see in a glass, even in a dark speaking …’

Trinity is beautifully done, opening without a break with string quartet, trumpet, trombones and bells with some quite exquisite sounds. The organ eventually brings back the tune from the Fugue: God the Son at the end. Cadenza directly follows, a terrific piece for organ pedals, with some stirring dissonance. I’d certainly like to hear more organ music from David Owen Norris.

A New World is an uplifting setting of ‘Dearly beloved, we are met together in the presence of God’ from the Book of Common Prayer, a true affirmation of God’s presence and our opportunity to make the world a better place. The work ends with a Seven Fold Amen, a stirring conclusion for all forces yet ending on a quiet note.  

There are many beautiful moments in this unusual work. Whilst it does not always gel as a whole, this is a work worth hearing for its many glorious moments.



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