Guest Reviewer, David Truslove

This release is the second from Naxos devoted to Francis Pott, born 1957, a British composer whose highly personal choral writing is distinctive for its assimilation of Tudor polyphony allied to numerous reminiscences of twentieth-century figures embracing Britten to Vaughan Williams. An acute sensitivity to biblical texts and poetry is evident in this generous coupling of two major commissions which foreground an uncompromising intellectual rigour with a captivating eloquence.

At First Light (2018) for choir and cello comprises a series of six meditations framed by words from the Latin Mass for the Dead with Laudibus in Sanctis (a paraphrase of Psalm 150) forming an exuberant William Byrd-inspired centrepiece – the work’s memorial character bearing kinship with a Requiem. Weaving its way through much of this highly evocative work is Joseph Spooner’s expressive cello – an elaborate and rapt commentary on love, loss and remembrance drawn from thought-provoking texts by Wendell Berry, Thomas Blackburn, Alun Lewis and Kahlil Gibran. It was commissioned by the American Eric Bruskin who requested a commemorative work for his mother that, with added “polyphonic burnout”, would also celebrate a life well lived. Pott responds to this extra wish with a nine-minute contrapuntal marathon of dazzling virtuosity. It’s an endurance test to strain the limits of most choirs, but Oxford-based Commotio negotiate its punishing (and relentless) double-choir counterpoint with remarkable ease, unflagging energy testament to the singers’ commitment to the composer as much to Matthew Berry’s skills as director.

Elsewhere, the writing is suitably restrained; richly chromatic and searching harmonies fashioned from serpentine vocal lines impose their own sober, yet haunting beauty. It’s a shame Naxos has failed to provide translations of the Latin texts, but their absence is no serious loss since Pott’s word-setting is so directly communicative even when the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ expands to eight-part textures. Luminosity characterises much of the piece, climaxes offering limited relief to a broadly encompassing plangent mode of expression. Two accomplished soloists (Tim Ambrose and Heather Thomas) bring individual expression to the solace of ‘We follow the dead to their graves’, comforting reassurances supported by choir and lamenting cello. Throughout, Pott’s forty-minute-plus At First Light is served by singing of formidable accuracy and a cellist of peerless musicianship.

The slightly shorter Word (2012) is no less intellectually probing and is compiled from an extended sequence of reflections on the meaning of the Gospel viewed through a secular, postmodern lens. Its commission by the Revd Dr Nicholas Fisher was conceived as part of the Merton Choirbook project to mark the 750th-anniversary of the foundation of Merton College, Oxford. Scored for choir and organ, Word intersperses five poems by R. S. Thomas with verses from St John’s Prologue. To the poet’s “thorny demotic language” and absence of comfortable certainties Pott provides a buoyant response, juxtaposing measured, often glowing introspection with restless dancing rhythms underpinned by a clarity of utterance inclined more towards chorale-like material than elaborate polyphony. Passages for soprano soloists are gratifyingly rendered and the demanding organ role (including a climatic epilogue) is superbly realised by Christian Wilson. As an interrogation of faith and humanity, Word provides a hard-won if subdued answer to divine mysteries.

Together, these two works represent a significant addition to choral literature: magnificent performances and generously recorded sound with a comprehensive booklet note from the composer. Naxos 8.573976.