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Paul Spicer's Easter Oratorio review

RSCM Church Music Quarterly March 2006

Easter Oratorio Birmingham Bach Choir/Lichfield Cathedral Choristers/Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir/English Symphony Orchestra/Paul Spicer

Oratorio: an Easter and Resurrection Oratorio: Three Spires Singers & Orchestra/Truro Cathedral Choristers/Robert Sharpe

To avoid any confusion: these two releases are recordings of the same piece. Recorded in 2005, the Birmingham Bach Choir's version presents the complete work. Their performance lasts approximately 1 hour 50 minutes and is spread over two discs. The Three Spires Singers and Orchestra gives a cut-down performance that occupies just one CD and lasts a little under 80 minutes. It was recorded in 2004.

Easter Oratorio comes from the pen of the conductor, producer, composer and biographer of Howells, Paul Spicer. The libretto is by theologian, columnist, lecturer and broadcaster Tom Wright, i.e. the Very Revd Dr N.T.Wright, Bishop of Durham. Thus, it ought to come as no surprise that this is a work of quality.

The narrative picks up where Bach's St John Passion leaves off and, following that great tradition, Oratorio includes well-known Easter hymns in which the congregation or audience can join. An Evangelist acts as narrator, soloists play various biblical characters and the chorus reacts to and comments on the action and themes.

Paul Spicer readily admits that his music contains 'echoes of Howells (my composition teacher), Walton and Finzi, and many others'. Yet he manages to fuse these influences and add enough of himself to create a sound world that is ultimately more original than derivative, colourfully orchestrated and full of a sinuous (Howellsian) counterpoint that is sure to appeal to many.

With the release of the complete oratorio, directed by the composer, the Three Spires recording directed by Robert Sharpe is virtually rendered obsolete. There is nevertheless much to commend the Three Spires performance, such as some characterful solo singing from Robert Murray (Evangelist), Natalie Clifton Griffith, Ed Lyon and Jonathan Gunthorpe. They are ably supported by the chorus and the orchestra. The problem is, while one might (possibly) be satisfied with a recording of, say, Elijah, that omits a small number of movements, in the case of a new work one wants to have the whole thing - and certainly not one that is half an hour shorter than it should be. Happily the performance directed by the composer is splendid.

The choirs create a massive sound that matches the monumental ambitions of the choral writing. The orchestra not only shines in the passages where there is no singing, but also accompanies with a great sensitivity. Jonathan Gunthorpe (baritone) is a rich-voiced and deeply expressive Jesus, Rachel Nicholls (soprano) is a passionate Mary, and Philip Salmon (tenor) is a clear and engaging Evangelist. The roles of Thomas and Simon Peter are sung lyrically by the young tenor, Nathan Vale.

It may seem superfluous to say that Spicer's performance is 'just right', but not all composers make the best of their own pieces when conducting them. Spicer's tempos are spot on, luxuriating in moments of drama, and then moving on when that is what is required. The speed of the sumptuously arranged Easter hymns, for instance, are perfect. The Sharpe version will suffice if you want a flavour of the piece, but to experience its architecture and its full impact, only the Spicer will do.

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