Thursday, 12 February 2015

Paul Carr: Seven Last Words from the Cross

When one considers musical settings of The Seven Last Words from the Cross, most listeners will think of Haydn. This work was originally not a choral setting but was a series of seven instrumental sonatas designed to be played after the ‘speaking’ of the biblical verses. There were three versions of this work – string quartet, choral (pietist poems) and piano. The actual biblical words themselves have been set by a number of composers including Heinrich Schutz (1645), Cesar Franck, (1859) and Charles Gounod (1855). There have been a few settings by British composers in the 20th century including an organ work (without words) by Alan Ridout (1965) and a choral version by James MacMillan (1993).
Paul Carr (b.1961)  has stated that in recent years he has been drawn towards religious choral music embodying ‘themes and texts’ about Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. Yet he admits to not holding ‘religious’ beliefs in any conventional or formal sense.  Like many before him, he sees the words of Jesus as having a greater relevance for life’s journey than any of the church’s ‘formalities.’

The Seven Last Words from the Cross was commissioned by the Bath Minerva Choir and was premiered by them on 20 April 2013. It was dedicated to Joanna Wiesner MBE a long-time supporter of music in Bath and South West England. The work is conceived for baritone solo, who sings the words of Jesus, a mixed voice choir and an orchestra of strings, harp, organ and percussion. The basic text is taken from St Matthew’s description of the crucifixion. What is interesting about this setting is that Carr has interpolated a number of Christian texts from other biblical and devotional literature. This includes the Good Friday Antiphon from the Missal, words from the 20th century Saint Padre Pio, Phineas Fletcher’s (1582-1650) ‘Drop, drop slow tears’, a verse from St John’s Gospel and an extract from the Stabat Mater.

The composer gives a detailed discussion of each section in the liner notes. From the point of view of the listener three things can be said to give an idea of this work’s huge stature. Firstly it is quite simply gorgeous. The largely restrained and long breathed music is perfectly matched to the texts. There are a number of ‘outbursts’ for example at the words ‘Woman Behold thy Son.’ Some of the music is fervent, such as the ‘My God, My God, Why hast thou Forsaken me?’ There is some powerful rhythmic music too: the setting of ‘It is Finished’ is almost frightening. Sheer beauty is restored with the Vaughan Williams-like (or is it Delius) ‘Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit.’ But the general mood is one of controlled passion. Secondly what does it sound like? The obvious answer is Paul Carr. However, for the curious, I was reminded of many of the great choral works of the repertoire. I guess that Duruflé’s Requiem could have been an inspiration. So too is Gabriel Fauré, George Dyson, RVW and a number of ‘Anglican’ composers of the twentieth century. Yet this is not a patchwork of styles or pastiche. Carr writes with a huge understanding of the European musical tradition. He is in a trajectory from Faure et al, but is never a slave to it. There is nothing in this music to repel or bewilder the listener. Just an impeccable setting of some perfect, eternal words. Thirdly, I would love to hear this music in one of the great English cathedrals. The whole concept of this work is mystical and ultimately numinous. It seems to demand being heard in a place of worship.

I have dealt with the heartrendingly beautiful Air for Strings in considerable depth in an article on MusicWeb International. A few words here will be of interest. The Air was redrafted in 2006 whilst the composer was living on Mallorca. It was dedicated to Cyrille Le Carboulec who was the composer’s partner at the time.  What the liner notes do not mention is that his piece was a reworking of the slow movement of Carr’s Violin Concerto written in the early ‘nineties and subsequently withdrawn after the first performance.  Secondly, I understand that there is a version of this work for ‘full orchestra.’ Thirdly the piece is conceived very much in the traditional ‘arch form’ with a considerable climax about halfway. And finally it is a work that can be compared to the greatest of all string pieces – Samuel Barber’s ubiquitous Adagio: not to supplant it, but to compliment it. The Air has also been released in Dutton Epoch CDLZ2079 with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Barry Wordsworth. (Available on download)

Paul Carr admits that the music to the gorgeous Ave Maria is ‘simple’ and maybe ‘slightly old-fashioned.’ This is no bad thing.  From my perspective it is timeless rather than dated.
There have been so many settings of vitally important Christian text: it is good to discover one that impresses and moves the listener anew.

The Beatitudes of Jesus for choir and orchestra is a masterpiece of choral writing. Whether one subscribes to any kind of Christian belief or not, one cannot help being moved by these timeless words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth and recorded in St Matthew’s Gospel. The work has an almost Arvo Pärt-ian simplicity about it. The music is undemonstrative virtually throughout. However, Carr notes that towards the conclusion of the work he has generated ‘a kind of Straussian haze in the strings which takes the work into a new and more luminous atmosphere…’ The Beatitudes are dedicated to the composer’s brother Gavin ‘in love and thanks for his…guidance and musical brilliance in conducting much of what [Carr] has composed in recent years.’  I enjoyed this work immensely and would love to hear it sung in ‘choirs and places where they sing.’

The first time I heard any setting of ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ was at a celebrity recital at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow in the ‘seventies.’ Janet Baker sang the famous Thomas Dunhill setting as, I think, an encore. Yeats’ words have haunted me ever since. Many people have set these words including Peter Warlock, Rebecca Clarke and Hugh Roberton. When Paul Carr’s CD arrived I was curious to see what he had made of one of my favourite poems.  After the orchestra-accompanied works on this CD, it is good to have an a-cappella motet to conclude with. Originally written for The Cricketers, Gresham School in Norfolk it was first heard in Wiverton Church in the same county. And I have to admit that Carr has hit the mark. It is a stunningly moving and perfectly stated setting. From the opening notes to the sustained last words by way of the impressive climax on the words ‘I have spread the cloths under your feet’ this is an ideal evocation if the poet’s intention.

This is a finely presented CD. The performances from the baritone, William Dazeley in The Seven Last Words is excellent. The choral singing is always well-balanced and clear. And finally the Bath Philharmonia under Gavin Carr give a committed account of this deeply felt music. The liner notes by the composer are always helpful. The sound quality is faultless.
I guess that I am surprised that this release from Stone Records has not generated many reviews. I noted one by Andrew Achenbach in the March 2014 edition of The Gramophone. There is a review of the premiere in the Bath Chronicle. It does not appear to have been noted in the BBC Music Magazine (I may have missed it) and even MusicWeb International has not yet reviewed it (until press)
Fortunately, Classic FM has taken up the Air for Strings and ‘The Cloths from Heaven’, which I understand has proved hugely popular with their listeners.  

This is an excellent production from one of Britain’ leading composers. Every piece is enjoyable, approachable and ultimately inspiring and often moving. It may be that some folk will not approve of Paul Carr’s largely ‘traditional’ musical language.  However, to my ear this CD proves that there is still ever so much to be ‘said’ using a largely tonal musical structure that does not require an ‘ism’ but simply a genuine inspiration and is truly devotional in the broadest sense.

Track Listing:
Seven Last Words from the Cross (2013)
Air for Strings (2006)
Ave Maria (2013)
The Beatitudes of Jesus (20113)
The Cloths of Heaven (2012)
William Dazeley (baritone) Chorus Angelorum Bath Philharmonia/Gavin Carr
STONE records 5060192780376 

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