Paul Spicer's Easter Oratorio review
The Gramophone April 2006
A major new work in the line of Howells and Elgar
Editor's Choice comments:
John Steane was very excited about this one, convinced it is a major new work. He could be right. Paul Spicer's deeply impressive oratorio is firmly in the school of Vaughan Williams and Elgar but assimilates an edgy unpredictability learnt from the music of Britten and Tippett. I'd love to hear this live.
A major new work in the line of Howells and Elgar Paul Spicer will be known to readers firstly as director of the Finzi Singers, then as author of an admired book on his teacher, Herbert Howells, and only thirdly, I suspect, as a composer in his own right. This new recording should go far to promote that last qualification from third place to first. The Easter Oratorio is a major work and the best of its kind to have appeared, certainly since the death of Howells, probably since Howells's Hymnus Paradisi.
It impresses as music written thus not because of any doctrinal purpose (meaning, principally, musical doctrine) but because this is the kind of music out of which its composer is made.
Collectors of half-remembered bits and pieces of everything from Elgar to Tippett will have a field day but they will be engaged in a trivial diversion. Spread generously before them are two hours of music which is beautiful with no suggestion of (the similarly expert) John Rutter's indulgent sweetness of the brassy-twitchy 'modernity' of others. Neither does it offer to take us, as so many serious composers now feel almost duty-bound to do, into regions which are new and strange to the traditions of English church music. Yet, without specially striving to be so, it is significantly new, and all the fresher, I would say, for starting up in the tracks of Finzi, Howells, Vaughan Williams and Elgar, so long shunned as out of fashion and irrelevant to our time.
The text is similarly strong and untrendy. Tom Wright, now Bishop of Durham, was Dean of Lichfield when the work was conceived for the Festival there (the first performance took place in Ely cathedral on 2000). He writes in a way which encourages intelligent engagement. Based closely on St John's Gospel, it is without unction or willed mysticism or portentous symbolism; if it has an amiable weakness to indulge it is a taste for Chestertonian paradox (as in 'the brooding of the Spirit, in the darkness of the spring'). The formal layout (narrative, arias, chorus, chorale, Easter Hymn) ensures clarity while exercising originality in the adaptation of old traditions. And the new work is given the fine performance (and recording) it deserves. Expert orchestral playing from all sections (especially woodwind) of the ESO, richly ample choral singing (with notable contributions from the Lichfield boys) and unfailingly musical work by all four soloists; all reflecting the conviction of its composer conductor.