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Première recording of Paul Spicer’s Unfinished Remembering

Unfinished Remembering - A Choral Symphony (2014) [60:49]
A Shared Singing (2014) [3:10]
Johane Ansell (soprano); William Dazeley (baritone)
Birmingham Bach Choir; The Birmingham Consort; The Midlands Military Community Choir (A Shared Singing) ; Martin Rawles (organ)
Orchestra of The Swan/Paul Spicer
rec. live, 13 September 2014, Symphony Hall, Birmingham.
English texts by Euan Tait included.
BIRMINGHAM BACH CHOIR BBCCD009 [63:58]

In 2014 I interviewed the composer and conductor, Paul Spicer. A good deal of our conversation covered his new work for chorus and orchestra, Unfinished Remembering, which was due to receive its first performance later in the year as part of the nation’s commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Sadly, I was out of the country when the première took place but my colleague, Roderick Dunnett gave it a very favourable notice for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard.

The work sets a libretto by the poet Euan Tait (b. 1968); indeed, it was Tait who, having written the text, approached Spicer to propose that he compose the music. Spicer makes it clear in his booklet note that the text is absolutely fundamental to the genesis and nature of the music so it’s worth considering what Tait has to say about the libretto in his own note. He writes that Unfinished Remembering “intends to speak both with proud gratitude of the courage and self-sacrifice of the soldiers of the Great War, and yet with the troubled questioning of our own time. It is an act of remembrance, a soul’s battle, and a questioning of the life of our own time.” Hence, I suppose the title of the work which indicates that we’re challenged in two ways by Remembrance. We should not merely reflect with pride and sadness on the sacrifices made for us on the battlefields of the Great War – and in subsequent wars. We should carry on that reflection by asking ourselves what implications do those sacrifices have for us today and what obligations do the sacrifices of the fallen place upon us? In that respect Remembrance is always unfinished.

So Tait’s libretto doesn’t just address the wartime sacrifices. The text of the second movement,Scherzo: Dies Irae, “asks how these soldiers [the fallen of the Great War] would judge our contemporary society”. As we’ll see, Tait weaves into his libretto powerful references to three young men who were not killed on the battlefield but were victims of various sorts of odious persecution during the twentieth century.

Unfinished Remembering is scored for soprano and baritone soloists; SATB chorus and semi-chorus (the latter provided here by the Birmingham Consort); organ and orchestra. The orchestral scoring is full but not excessive, requiring double woodwind, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players), celesta/piano and strings.

The work is cast in four movements which play without a break. The first, Requiem, has a short Prologue for chorus and orchestra which in urgent music envisions a crowd of people hastening – physically – to an act of remembrance. The main part of the movement, ‘The soldiers come back’ is introduced by the solo baritone (3:19). Memories of the soldiers falling in battle are juxtaposed tellingly with images of Absalom, the slain son of King David. This section includes some deeply felt and often quite angular writing for both soloists. Later in the movement Tait portrays the haste with which, at the end of the War, soldiers sought to return home from France. There’s an obvious echo here of the earlier imagery of a crowd rushing to remembrance.

The second movement is Scherzo: Dies Irae. Here there’s a good deal of vigorous, jagged music. The fallen soldiers question the values of contemporary society and their spokesman is the baritone who tells the chorus “I will walk you down/three roads of your time./I will give you the riddles/of three destroyed lives.” Three victims of injustice are recalled: Matthew Shepherd, the 21-year old victim of a homophobic murder in 1998; a German Jew, Helmut Hirsch, also aged 21, executed by the Nazis in 1937 after a failed plot; and Stephen Lawrence, murdered in London by racists in 1993, aged 18. These three victims aren’t mentioned by name in the score but the baritone’s lines make clear which one is being referred to at each particular juncture. Spicer’s music for the dialogue between baritone and chorus is vivid and impassioned. Later, the solo soprano has some passionate interjections which Johane Ansell sings with no little intensity; my only criticism would be that her words aren’t always clear. At the close of the movement the choir reflects on the challenge laid on us all by the earlier sacrifice of soldiers to remember the victims of injustice.

The third movement Recordare contains, I believe, some of the most impressive music in the symphony. It opens with a baritone solo, at first unaccompanied and later with sparse instrumental support. His words are those of a soldier who is about to face overwhelming odds; he knows his fate. The soloist’s music is very intense and this whole episode is ominous. Later, over a moving bass line, the choir has music which put me in mind of Vaughan Williams. They’re joined by the semi-chorus who sing in German a chorale harmonised by Bach. I don’t know if it’s the writing or the balance that was achieved on the night but I found it hard to differentiate between the music of the main chorus and that of the semi-chorus; the latter are a bit too prominent, I feel. This movement includes a good deal of eloquent and expressive choral writing. The final section (from 15:04) consists of an impassioned solo for the baritone accompanied by the chorus.

The finale is Libera me. It opens with the choir depicting the fear of people whose town is being bombarded. The orchestral writing is appropriately percussive. Perhaps inevitably the choir’s words get a bit lost at times in this passage. There’s a slow and reflective processional for the choir, starting with the words “Know this, you who died” (8:14-10:17). This is dignified and heartfelt music and is sung as such. The extended closing section (from 12:35) is very affecting (“It is enough/Go, rest now and be still.) but even here the words and the sentiment will not permit the music to achieve rest. Doubts and a sense of unworthiness beside the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in conflict remain right to the end of the piece.

Unfinished Remembering is a moving and compelling work. Euan Tait has written a libretto which offers a thought-provoking reflection not only on why Remembrance is important but also on the challenges that remembering our war dead should pose. One is reminded of the words of the poet John Maxwell Edmonds, inscribed on a Second World War memorial and commonly used at Remembrance services: “When you go home, tell them of us and say/For their tomorrow, we gave our today.” Tait’s libretto makes us think in a new way what the real meaning of these words should be. Paul Spicer has responded to the challenge of Tait’s words with fine, expressive music which, like all good vocal music, enhances and expands the words that are set. Anyone who has heard Spicer’s fine Easter Oratorio(review) will know the quality of his music and especially of his vocal writing though as befits its subject matter the music of Unfinished Remembering is somewhat grittier, especially in the first two movements.

At the first performance the concert programme also included Dona nobis pacem by Vaughan Williams. I thought at the time that this was an apt choice. However, by sheer chance only a couple of weeks before reviewing this disc I reviewed a new recording of that Vaughan Williams piece. Hearing the two works now in close proximity convinces me that these two expressive scores, which have similarities in the messages they convey, are exceptionally well suited to each other.

The world première performance, preserved here, was clearly a very fine one. Both of the soloists are eloquent and sing very well indeed. The Orchestra of The Swan has a deserved reputation and here plays extremely well. With rare exceptions they achieve the not-inconsiderable feat of not overwhelming the choir even though the scoring is often full - and always imaginative. As for the Birmingham Bach Choir they make a splendid contribution – as do their colleagues in the semi-chorus. I strongly suspect that this project had fired the collective imagination of the choir. It certainly sounds that way for they respond to their conductor – and his music - with great commitment. Their singing is consistently assured.

The disc also includes a unison National Song by Spicer and Tait, A Shared Singing. This is actually the second performance of the piece; immediately prior to the rendition that’s preserved here, which involved the full forces and the Symphony Hall audience, the song had been sung for the first time with organ accompaniment by The Midlands Military Community Choir for whom it was written. While I’m not convinced that Tait’s words will catch on Paul Spicer’s tune is stirring. The choirs and audience join in with gusto, proving that spirited unison singing can be exciting to hear.

The performances have been captured in excellent sound. Producer Martin Cotton and engineer Tony Wass have produced a well-balanced recording that has impact and relays a great deal of detail as well as conveying an excellent impression of the full ensemble. Though an audience was present they are commendably silent until their vociferous applause at the end. There’s an exemplary booklet which is well illustrated and which contains much information about the piece as well as the sing texts.

Unfinished Remembering is an important addition to the choral repertoire and it has a direct relevance as we continue to mark the centenary of the Great War until the end of 2018. However, it deserves to endure beyond that limited period of time. I hope that other choirs will take it up and this excellent CD is the best way of disseminating knowledge of it.

John Quinn

Musicweb International