Friday, 10 July 2015

Conspirare under their director Craig Hella Johnson perform Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles on a highly recommended new release from Harmonia Mundi

Joby Talbot (b.1971) was born in Wimbledon, England in 1971 and studied composition privately with Brian Elias and at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College before completing a Master of Music (Composition) at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Simon Bainbridge.

Talbot’s compositions include a trumpet concerto Desolation Wilderness for Alison Balsom in 2006, arrangements of songs by Detroit rock duo The White Stripes alongside existing works for Wayne McGregor’s Chroma produced by The Royal Ballet in 2006, and the music for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a co-production between The Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada in 2011. A second collaboration with Wheeldon and the same two companies culminated in the 2014 premiere of The Winter's Tale.

Talbot has also written a madrigal The Wishing Tree (The King’s Singers, 2002), an orchestral work Sneaker Wave (BBC National Orchestra of Wales, 2004) and an arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony in G minor for the BBC Proms (BBC Symphony Orchestra, 2011). Worlds, Stars, Systems, Infinity was commissioned in 2012 for the Philharmonia Orchestra’s interactive digital installation, Universe of Sound, as an addition to Holst’s The Planets. Tide Harmonic (2009), a work for large ensemble, began life as the score for Eau by choreographer Carolyn Carlson and CCN Roubaix. Other significant works written or adapted for dance include Fool’s Paradise (Christopher Wheeldon and Morphoses, 2007), an arrangement of Talbot’s 2002 silent film score The Dying Swan; Genus (Paris Opera Ballet, 2007); Entity (Wayne McGregor and Random Dance, 2008); and Chamber Symphony for Chamber by choreographer Medhi Walerski (Residentie Orkest/Nederlands Dans Theater and Norwegian Opera and Ballet, 2012).

His a cappella choral journey along the Camino de Santiago for Nigel Short’s Tenebrae, Path of Miracles was written in 2005 and is now recorded for Harmonia Mundi  by the Texas based choir Conspirare under their director Craig Hella Johnson

HMU 807603

Path of Miracles is an hour-long a cappella exploration of the phenomenon of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient Catholic pilgrimage route across northern Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. The text comprises of excerpts from historical and sacred documents in several different languages, alongside original material by poet Robert Dickinson.

In four sections it opens with Roncesvalles, a favourite resting place for pilgrims along the Way of St. James. The voices of Conspirare rise slowly out of the depths, creating the most amazing sound, rich textured and with shifting harmonies. They rise slowly in volume, pathos and intensity until the words ‘O Santiago’ are heard. Crotales gently sound as the voices ease back, moving through moments that are quite mesmerising. Hushed chant is pointed up by the tinkling of the crotales before a faster tempo arrives with the terrific basses of this choir underpinning the other voices, soprano sounding out above. There is some outstandingly sung part writing as the music develops generating the feeling of multitudes of pilgrims making the journey over the centuries. Crotales sound to bring a falling away of the voices. A deep solo bass appears in a particularly fine section before the choir lead forward in a repeated theme. This section concludes on a rising motif with the same words as the opening.

Burgos is the historic capital of Castile and is an important point along the Camino de Santiago. Plaintive voices open this section reminding us of the mediaeval pilgrim’s vicissitudes with the words ‘Innkeepers cheat us.’ Soon the choir brings a prayer ‘St Julian of Cuenca, pray for us’ exquisitely written and sung. The music moves through some quite mesmerising passages as prayers are mingled with an account of the hardships suffered by previous pilgrims. Talbot’s use of repetitive voices underlying higher, more animated voices is masterly. The music increases in tempo and drama when the words ’The devil waits in a turn in the wind’ but falls to a gentle, quieter passage with ‘We beat our hands against the walls of heaven.’ A prayer to St Julian leads us to the coda, basses join for a final prayer to St James.

Leon refers to the historical city in north-west again on the Camino de Santiago.  Sopranos come in high up with the words ‘Li soleus qui en moi luist est mes deduis’ (The sun that shines within me is my joy) before the male voices join in this ecstatically lovely section. The sopranos keep the same theme and words over which male voices continue the text. Richer textures are built as the sopranos continue as though a constant companion. It is the female voices that take ‘Le chemin bruise de rumeurs de grâces’ (Rumours of grace on the road), quite exquisitely sung. Soon the choir increase in intensity as the music slowly rises before suddenly dropping on the words ‘Quam dilecta tabernacula tua’ (How admirable are thy tabernacles) a truly fine moment. The music moves through some lovely passages, not least when a soprano solo sings ‘Beate, qui habitant in domo tua, Domine’ (Blessed are they that dwell in thy house) before a beautifully conceived coda.

Santiago is the capital of Galicia in north-western Spain, having its origin in the shrine of Saint James the Great, now the city’s cathedral, as destination of the Way of St. James. In this final section a soprano opens with the text ‘The road climbs through changing land’ over a broader choral support. There is a lovely restraint as female voices chant the words with male voices moving over them. The whole choir bring ‘Then, from the stream at Lavacolla’ with some exquisite textures in this quite beautiful passage. The tempo rises as thanks are given to St. James, as though propelling the pilgrims forward to their destination. Conspirare bring some terrific accuracy and flexibility as the music pushes forward, rising to a peak at ‘Herr Santiago.’ The voices fall quieter as basses bring ‘At the Western edge of the world we pray for our sins to fall from us’ with the rest of the choir providing a lovely swaying motif. There is a lightening of atmosphere as the choir gently chant, ‘We have walked out of our lives’ another lovely moment, beautifully sung. The music rises a little with crotales sounding before the final hymn brings a rich coda that slowly fades away as the pilgrims walk on.

This is a very fine choral disc indeed. The choir are beautifully recorded at St Martins Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas, USA and there are informative booklet notes as well as full texts and English and French translations. Highly recommended.

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