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Paul Spicer's Easter Oratorio review

International Record April 2006

Paul Spicer's excellent work as a conductor and producer are well known, but until I received this disc for review I hadn't realised he was a composer too. After listening to his Easter Oratorio one concludes that Spicer's abilities as a composer should really come at the top of his CV. He has created something wonderful here, something which people are going to want to hear again and again. Here's a modern religious choral work which pulls no expressive punches, yet is clearly designed to be manageable by good amateur forces. Spicer himself is the conductor here and also, I suspect, had a hand in the producing. The results - musical, technical and sonic - are absolutely terrific.

The oratorio was conceived in 1998 to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Lichfield Cathedral, and it had its first performance on July 15th, 2000. (The simultaneous celebration that year of the 250th anniversary of Bach's death also left its mark on the score.) The focus of the oratorio is the Resurrection story as told by St John, beginning, where Passions end, with Christ entombed. The text by Tom Wright (Bishop of Durham) is a model of poetic concision and dramatic lucidity. He divides the work into a regular succession of choruses, recitatives, arias, chorales and a sequence of six Easter hymns.

Spicer responds to this Passion-Oratorio libretto with pithy, urgent, uplifting, memorable music which is rich in allusion. He has his own subtle style, but it's one which proudly acknowledges its roots in the music of Howells (Spicer's composition teacher), Finzi, Walton, Britten and others too. But Spicer is no eclectic splicer. This is music which breathes fresh air and responds personally, immediately and movingly to the text in hand, and if it sometimes espouses an earnest kind of Anglicanism the that's certainly preferable to the terrible curse of sentimentality which hangs over so much modern church music (mentioning no names).

Some of the things I enjoyed most were the simplest yet most telling touches: the sweep of emotion that leads to each of the six Easter hymns, the glowing, euphonious major key cadences at ends of numbers (especially recitatives), and time and again a bold, direct tunefulness which I feel sure is going to result in some of these hymns enjoying a life outside the parent work. Spicer is also a deft orchestrator. The mysterious string-writing of the aria which conjures up the raised Jesus ('The same, and yet renewed') is most effective. Overall there's a bit too much tambourine-rattling for my taste, but I love the uses to which he puts the organ - best of all, the long deep pedal note that underlies the middle of the chorus 'Where have they laid my Jesus?'.

Despite being recorded over several days, as is the usual way, this feels like a living, vital, spontaneous performance. The amalgamated choral forces unite singers from school age up to retirement - and they produce a wonderfully heterogeneous, disciplined, full-bodied choral sound. They are partnered by orchestral playing of exceptional sensitivity. The brass are unashamedly forthright, the percussion punchy and crisp, and the strings warmly British. The four soloists are powerful advocates (Evangelist Philip Salmon a fraction insecure in his upper reaches), their voices striking and radiant in the spacious acoustic of Hawksyard Priory. Here's a work which should be taken up by choral societies and orchestras up and down the country. Uplifting.

Simon Heighes

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Easter Oratorio cover

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