Thursday, 13 January 2011

Paul Carr: Requiem for an Angel

Paul Carr is at pains to point out that he is not a writer ‘light’ music. He would regard himself as a ‘lyrical’ composer who considers that tunes and largely conventional (but not predictable) harmonic language and formal principles are an important part of his musical language. There was a time when this sort of approach to composition was frowned upon: when it was regarded as being beneath contempt. In those days, it seemed, the less enjoyable a work was the more profoundly it was regarded by the cognoscenti. Now, I am not averse to the music of the ‘serialist’ and certain of the avant-garde from the last half of the twentieth century, although if I am honest I will always rate Finzi above Lutyens – at least from the music’s ability to move me, if not its technical competence.
Developing from this antithesis between ‘lyrical’ and ‘art’ music was the tendency to despise any work that relied on the influences of a composer from certain previous eras or traditions. Without doubt, it was fine to claim inspiration from Schoenberg, Webern, or Messiaen: it was regarded as passé to rely on the musical ethos of an Elgar, a Rachmaninov or a Brahms. It was just not done. Yet there have been many composers of great worth in British musical history that have bucked this trend. One needs only think of William Lloyd Webber and his gorgeous late-late romantic soundscape, or perhaps Percy Whitlock and his massive Rachmaninovian Organ Symphony. Coming closer to the world of this present CD, we have had two fine ‘popular’ Requiems from Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Rutter, both of which have caught the public imagination in a big way. And then there was the Liverpool Oratorio by Sir Paul McCartney...! Paul Carr has developed this approachable ‘classical’ music style to a high degree.
The present Requiem was conceived as a tribute to the composer’s mother Una Hale. She hailed from Australia and was highly regarded in the 1950’s and ’60 as a principal soprano at Covent Garden. Carr has touchingly stated that writing this work ‘afforded me the opportunity of expressing my love and gratitude through music and words to a woman who had given her life to music, to her family, and given me everything.’
Two things I would say need to be understood about the Requiem for an Angel. Firstly, it is not a straight forward setting of the words from the Roman Missal. I doubt that it would be used at a mass for the dead. This is not because the composer has in any way destroyed the meaning and spiritual content of the liturgy, but he has added texts of his own devising and some culled from the works of saints and poets. This is exactly the approach taken by Johannes Brahms in his masterpiece, the German Requiem. However Paul Carr has retained much of the Mass text, the main omission being the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath. St Teresa of Avila and Arthur William Symons provide words for a choral setting, but perhaps the most moving text are two lines from Emily Dickinson – ‘The World feels dusty/when we stop to die’. A touch of genius I feel, on Carr’s part. The fine poem ‘Do I love you?’ By the American poet Jack Larson is an interesting touch. Quoting the composer, ‘with the arguments over the acceptance of homosexuality in the Church, I also wanted to include this essentially gay love song as an expression of my belief that were Jesus alive today, he would embrace us all, as one.’ Food for thought, indeed! 

The second point to bear in mind is that the music is essentially listenable, from the first note to the last. It may be easy to detect references and allusions. Most listeners will feel that Gabriel Fauré’s masterpiece is never too far away. Maurice Duruflé is there to a lesser extent. But my argument to anyone criticising this ‘debt’ would be ‘So what!’ Paul Carr has written a frankly popular work – witness the fact it has been taken up by Classic FM. He has created a sound world that is not Brahms, Fauré, Duruflé or anyone else: but it is a work that follows a trajectory of romantic word setting of liturgical texts that lies along the line of development of those above named composers. In that sense it is a major achievement. It manages to succeed as a work of art, and most important of all it deeply moves the listener. It is never, ever pastiche.
Three short choral works make up the remainder of this very beautiful CD. The setting of e.e. cummings ‘i thank you God for most this amazing day’ is a minor masterpiece. It is dedicated to the composer’s father. ‘Holding the Stars’ is a short work for unaccompanied choir setting words by the composer: it is a near-perfect combination of words and music. Finally Paul Carr commemorated his sojourn in Mallorca between 2004 and 2009. He regards this as a ‘song of farewell.’ At the end of this period, he left the island, ended a long personal relationship and accepted the need to move professionally in a new direction. This is a heart-breakingly lovely choral work that certainly brought a tear to my eye. One thinks of Stanford’s ‘Bluebird’ and Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ as similar achievements in choral writing – and that is no mean comparison. It is a poignant and fitting conclusion to a stunningly beautiful CD.
On the details of the recording, the performance absolutely matches the quality of the music. The sleeve notes, by Paul Carr, are extremely helpful and give the listener a good understanding of the man and his music. An excellent introduction by the composer with a sample of the music to this work can be seen and heard on YouTube.
I would heartily recommend this CD to all those who love choral music at its very best. This is a performance that entertains sometime challenges and most importantly of all, moves the soul and gives encouragement and solace to the spirit.

Track Listing:

‘i thank you God for most this amazing day’ (e.e.cummings) (undated)
‘Holding the Stars’ (Carr) (2009)
‘Now Beauty Comes’ (Carr) (2009)
Sophie Bevan (soprano) Mark Stone (baritone)
Chorus Angelorum; The Bath Philharmonia conducted by Gavin Carr
STONE RECORDS 5060192780048

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