Pascoe requiem REGCD549

Russell Pascoe (b. 1959)
Secular Requiem (2013)
Threnody for Jowan (‘Every leaf must fall’) (1995)
A Sequence for Remembrance (2018)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano); Julien Van Mellaerts (baritone)
Truro Cathedral Choir
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Christopher Gray
rec. 2019/22, Truro Cathedral
Texts included

I’ve heard pieces by the Cornish composer, Russell Pascoe previously, but nothing on the scale of his Secular Requiem. It’s an ambitious score, requiring two soloists, SATB choir and quite a large orchestra; it plays for some 49 minutes.

In the extensive documentation, Christopher Gray describes Pascoe as “a well-informed and carefully reasoned non-believer”, albeit one who has written quite a number of liturgical pieces. In that respect, might one draw a parallel with Ralph Vaughan Williams? Pascoe explains that, in pondering the composition of this work, he wanted to “break free from the conventions of the Mass for the Dead” and range much more widely in the texts that he would set. He had the good fortune to meet a retired professor, Anthony Pinching (b 1947), who compiled the libretto for him. When one looks at the wide selection of apposite texts that comprise this discerningly constructed libretto, one might assume that Pinching was a professor of English Literature, but that’s not the case. His academic discipline was Clinical Immunology but he has a great interest in music, writes poetry and, as Pascoe says, has an “encyclopædic” knowledge of literature. Pinching has fashioned a marvellous libretto, although three poems – by John Donne, Dylan Thomas and Stephen Anderton – were ones which Pascoe himself was determined to include.

It is well known that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Structurally, Pascoe’s Secular Requiem follows what I might perhaps call a parallel pattern. The five sections into which Pinching’s libretto are fashioned are: ‘The Proposition’; ‘The Recognition’; ‘The Reaction’; ‘The Transition’; and ‘The Accommodation’. Each section except the fifth has three sub-sections, each of which play continuously. The last section only has two sub-sections. The first three sections end with a refrain, for unaccompanied upper voices, of words by Rabindranath Tagore: ‘Peace, my heart, let the time for parting be sweet’. Pascoe sets these words to music of utmost simplicity and beauty. After the fourth section the refrain occurs again but this time in a much expanded version: more words by Tagore are included and the music is scored for the full choir and the two soloists. As we shall see, the end of the final section dispenses with Tagore’s words; by that point, the concept of the work has moved on.

The libretto uses words from a variety of sources. These include John Donne’s famous lines that begin ‘No man is an island’; this opens the work. Section 2 begins with some lines from ‘The Going’ by Thomas Hardy which is set as a lively debate between the two soloists. Section 3 starts with ‘Do not go gentle’ by Dylan Thomas. Here, it seems to me, Pascoe takes his cue from the line ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’, setting Thomas’s lines to music that is strong and biting; in the present performance both chorus and orchestra are here at their most incisive. That is followed immediately by ‘When she was still alive’ which couldn’t be more different. Pinching has selected lines by a seventh-century Japanese composer (in English translation) which Pascoe makes into an eloquent solo for the mezzo; Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings it with patrician feeling.

Ms Wyn-Rogers is also involved in one of the most surprising bits of the whole work. In section 4 she has as an extended solo a poem entitled ‘Cats and Cake’ by Stephen Anderton (b 1955). If I understand it correctly, this extraordinary poem lets us hear about death from the standpoint of the very recently deceased. The dead person (a woman, I believe) runs through all the mundane tasks – such as feeding the cat – that death, which has just happened, it seems, has prevented her from accomplishing. It’s a clever conception and Pascoe responds to it with witty music. Catherine Wyn-Rogers enters right into the spirit. Immediately before that we’ve experienced ‘The last rose of summer’ which is sung by the baritone (the excellent Julien Van Mellaerts) assisted by the tenors and basses. Pascoe clothes these familiar words in a simple, direct melody which has vague echoes – to my mind at least – of the best-known tune associated with the poem. Pascoe’s music fits the sentiment of the poem very well.

The final section, ‘The Accommodation’ is, we realise, the point to which the Secular Requiem has been leading. There are two sub-sections. First, choir and orchestra deliver lines from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom’d. The extract begins ‘Come lovely and soothing death’ and Pascoe has set it to music that is powerful and positive – though, as Jeremy Dibble points out in his analytical note, the music is cast in both a minor key (the passages for orchestra alone) and a major key (where the choir sings). It’s a very impressive setting and it tees things up very well for the concluding episode, which follows without a break. Here, the full forces are involved in a setting of a poem by Anthony Pinching himself entitled ‘Seasons’. I don’t know if Pinching wrote this specially for the Secular Requiem but I rather think he might have done since its sentiments seem to draw together the preceding threads. Pascoe has clothed the poetry in fine, inspiring music, culminating in what Jeremy Dibble aptly describes as “a paean of optimism in A major”. As I listened, it seemed to me that the words and music of this conclusion carried a firm message that sorrow is past and beyond it there is hope.

Russell Pascoe’s Secular Requiem is a major achievement. In it, with the considerable assistance of Anthony Pinching’s discerning libretto, he articulates many profound emotions. The music itself is moving and consistently draws the listener in. The vocal writing is assured – Pascoe consistently enhances the poetry with his music: he does not overwhelm it – and the melodic basis of the music is strong, appealing and original. The orchestral side of the score is full of interest, colour and incident. As for the performance, it’s hard to imagine that Pascoe’s piece could have been better served. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is on splendid collective form. The two soloists are excellent in every respect. The Truro Cathedral Choir make a distinguished contribution. In a concert setting I’m sure a larger choir would be needed in order to balance satisfactorily with the orchestra – I note that the work was commissioned by the Three Spires Singers, which, judging by their website, is a large SATB choir, However, engineer David Hinitt and producer Gary Cole have ensured that all the forces are expertly balanced in the recording. Christopher Gray draws the whole ensemble together expertly, leading a performance of great conviction.

The disc contains two smaller scale works by Russell Pascoe. Threnody for Jowan is for unaccompanied chorus. It was written in a single day in response to the death of the new-born child of a close friend of the composer. A journalist, Richard Madden, was staying with Pascoe as a guest at the time and on hearing the news he immediately wrote the poem which Pascoe set to music there and then. The piece is simple, touching and direct in its expression. The Truro Cathedral Choir give it a beautiful and caring performance.

A Sequence for Remembrance was commissioned by Truro Cathedral to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice. It was premiered in the cathedral on Remembrance Sunday, 2018. The construction is somewhat unusual in that the piece is scored for SATB choir and string orchestra but the two elements never perform together. Instead, the strings play a Prelude and two Interludes while in between each of these three episodes, the choir sings an unaccompanied anthem. Anthony Pinching was involved once again, both as librettist and as the author of the poem which concludes the Sequence. The Prelude features what Jeremy Dibble accurately describes as “gnarled harmonic language”, after which the choir sings Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Reconciliation’. Dibble describes the setting as “a gentle, tender interpretation” of the poem, and so it is – up to a point. But there’s a strong element of bitter reproach in the poem as well and where that comes to the fore Pascoe gives added voice to the poet’s bitterness through his harmonic language. The first of the two Interludes is swift and acerbic – a good deal of the music is played pizzicato – after which Pascoe sets lines from one of the most famous war poems of all, Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’. Unsurprisingly, he and Pinching selected the lines that begin ‘They shall grow not old’. This movement is the heart of the work. The music is deeply felt and becomes increasingly powerful as the setting progresses. When Pascoe reaches the words ‘We will remember them’ the music to which he sets them expresses determination that the dead will not be forgotten. Gradually, however, the music subsides until the words are assigned to a solo treble – Oliver Thorpe, who sings with great clarity and assurance – while the choir literally recedes into the background, processing away from the soloist. The second Interlude reprises music from the first of the choral anthems and then we hear ‘Moving on’, a musical setting of a poem by Anthony Pinching. Surely, this must have been written specifically for Pascoe to set. It’s one of the finest expressions of sentiment around the concept of Remembrance that I’ve read. The opening and closing couplets will give a flavour: ‘Remembrance must be more than just recall. / It is to learn, to act with wisdom.’ And then, at the end: ‘We will remember them, / but now will strive for peace.’ These lines inspired Pascoe to write equally eloquent music: slow, thoughtful outer sections encase a somewhat more energetic episode. A Sequence for Remembrance is an impressive and thoughtful composition.

This is a notable disc. The publicity states that the recording of Secular Requiem is “the largest project ever undertaken by an English cathedral choir”. It’s certainly been a worthwhile project because I believe this piece to be a significant achievement and its appearance on disc, which will bring it to wider attention is most welcome. The other two works, while smaller in scale are equally worthy of attention.

Regent’s production values are high. The recorded sound is excellent – the two shorter works were recorded in 2019, the Secular Requiem in 2022, once Covid restrictions had disappeared. The booklet is a model of its kind; it is all very clearly laid out and includes valuable notes by both the conductor and the composer as well as a detailed essay on the music by Jeremy Dibble.

As I write this review, it has just been announced that Christopher Gray is to succeed Andrew Nethsingha as Director of Music at St Johns College, Cambridge. He’s been at Truro Cathedral since 2000, first as Assistant Director of Music and then, since 2008, as Director of Music. I believe he won’t be moving to Cambridge until some time in 2023 but in the nature of things this may well be the last recording he will make in Truro. If that’s the case, this is a fitting achievement with which to end his Cornish career.

John Quinn

Following the publication of this review I was contacted by the Three Spires Singers, the choir which commissioned Secular Requiem. They have confirmed that Anthony Pinching’s poem ‘Seasons’ was indeed written specifically for inclusion in Russell Pascoe’s work. They have also added the very interesting information that Pascoe has now made an arrangement of the score for organ and three percussionists so that smaller choirs can perform Secular Requiem.

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