Roth The Traveller, Earth and Sky Signum Classics

Alec Roth (b. 1948) 
The Traveller (2008)
Earth and Sky (2000)
Mark Padmore (tenor – The Poet), Philippe Honoré (violin – The Traveller); Vayu Naidu (speaker); James Keefe (piano)
Ex Cathedra; Ex Cathedra Senior Academy of Vocal Music; Ex Cathedra Scholars
Ex Cathedra Junior Academy of Vocal Music; Lordswood Girls’ School
Britten Sinfonietta/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. live, 30 April & 1 May, 2022, Town Hall, Birmingham 
Texts included
Signum Classics SIGCD753 [62]

Over the last few years, I’ve encountered quite a few works by Alec Roth and I’ve very much admired what I’ve heard. Among the pieces that have come my way, on disc and in concert, have been Earthrise (2009) and Shared Ground(2007) (review) as well as A Time to Dance (2012) (review) In addition, I enjoyed a disc containing a number of Roth’s solo songs performed by Mark Padmore (review), and on the strength of the review by Bob Briggs I bought another disc of songs entitled Songs in Time of War. This new disc features a number of artists who have frequently collaborated with Roth, including Mark Padmore, the violinist Philippe Honoré and, of course, Ex Cathedra and their founder Jeffrey Skidmore. The latter have been particular champions of Roth’s music.

Alec Roth has forged a particularly strong collaborative bond with the Indian poet and novelist   Vikram Seth (b 1952). So significant has been their artistic relationship that Seth wrote a book, The Rivered Earth (Penguin, 2011), which describes their collaborations and contains an account by Seth of “the pleasures and pains of working with a composer”. Seth is the librettist for both of the works recorded on this CD and, in fact, his booklet essay about The Traveller is an abridged extract from the aforementioned book. 

The Traveller is the third of four major works which were jointly commissioned from Roth and Seth between 2006 and 2009 by the Salisbury, Chelsea and Lichfield Festivals. All four of these works included a solo role for Philippe Honoré and each work took a different geographical or cultural area as its starting point. The Traveller received its first performance in Salisbury Cathedral in 2008 as part of the celebrations of the 750th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral. As Vikram Seth explains in the booklet, the design of the work takes the listener through the four traditional stages of life in Hinduism – childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. To this scheme Seth added two more stages: unborn and death. There is also a short seventh section, an Epilogue. He has fashioned his libretto, which is in English, from a variety of sacred and secular sources in a variety of Indian languages.  He has also included six poems of his own, which have the collective title Six Ages and which were written specially for this libretto. A crucial structural pillar is the inclusion of the seven verses of the Hymn to Creation in the Rig Veda. One of these verses is spoken before each of the work’s seven sections. The speaker is Vayu Naidu; she’s excellent, speaking the words in a dignified and nicely measured fashion. Her diction is crystal clear, as is that of all the singers.

I think it is a singular achievement on Seth’s part that he has woven all his sources together into a very satisfying libretto. Inspired by the texts, Roth has set the words most effectively to music. If I say that his music is not complex, I do not mean that disparagingly. Rather, the music communicates very directly to the listener and it enhances the words rather than obscuring them in any way.

The choral writing seems to me to be very effective. Several passages involve unison singing and in the passages of harmony the harmonic language is straightforward. There is little contrapuntal writing. By stripping the music back to the essentials in these ways, Roth puts his music at the service of Seth’s libretto and the results are illuminating. Among the examples that caught my ear is the first episode that involves the choir; they sing the first of Seth’s poems and clearly do so while processing onto the stage – an effect which the recording captures very well; their only accompaniment is a softly-struck drum. Right at the end of the work, immediately before the Epilogue, the choir leaves the stage, reprising the same words and music. Earlier, in Part 3, the choir is given a lovely unison setting of some lines from a Tamil poem dating from the Fourth Century. I described this as a unison setting, but that’s not quite true; towards the end the choir break out into harmony and the effect is heightened because Roth has held back that musical gesture. 

Roth also uses a children’s choir, here the combined forces of Ex Cathedra Junior Academy of Vocal Music and six pupils from Lordswood Girls’ School. They are involved on two or three occasions but their most prominent exposure is, unsurprisingly, in the second section, ‘Child’. Roth writes most attractively for these youthful singers who respond with clear, keen singing. Towards the start of the section they sing a Hindi children’s rhyme and if I say that they sound like irrepressible urchins I mean that as a sincere compliment. These young performers have been prepared expertly by Rebecca Ledgard. At a time when so much concern is being expressed – rightly – at the lack of provision of music education in schools it’s great to find youngsters getting an opportunity like this to sing music which stretches them – in a sensible fashion – doesn’t condescend to them, and involves them in a serious large work with adult performers. This, I think, goes to the heart of Ex Cathedra’s longstanding and successful educational programme in Birmingham.

At the opposite pole to these youthful singers is the seasoned professional voice of Mark Padmore. Though we’re not told explicitly in the booklet, I strongly suspect that Alec Roth conceived the tenor part with his voice in mind. Certainly, it plays to his vocal strengths. His plangent, firm tone is ideally suited to the vocal lines and he delivers the words expressively and with great clarity. Philippe Honoré is equally accomplished in his delivery of the important violin part. Occasionally – at the start of Section 3 and at the conclusion of Section 6, for example – the violinist is thrust into the spotlight but more often he complements and decorates the sung lines.

The orchestral forces consist of strings, harp and percussion. The members of the Britten Sinfonietta play incisively and touch in the colours of Roth’s scoring most effectively.

The Traveller is a very original and, I think, successful score. The music is highly accessible and, as I’ve said already, enhances the sophisticated libretto. I enjoyed it and also admired it and I’m delighted that the live performances in Birmingham in 2022 have enabled the score to be brought to a wider audience through this CD release.

The disc is completed by Earth and Sky, a work commissioned by the BBC for the 2000 Proms. As the composer comments in a note, “In keeping with the millennial theme, a work presenting a vision of the future was requested”. Reflecting on the commission, Roth came to realise that despite the great advances in mankind’s knowledge, “the big questions remain the same….’How shall I know where I should go? How may I see the I that’s me?’” To help him express these questions he turned, perhaps inevitably, to Vikram Seth who wrote him a poem. Unusually, the poem is entirely monosyllabic, which gave rise to all sorts of compositional opportunities. The resulting work, which plays for just under 10 minutes, is scored for children’s choir, piano and optional percussion – with members of the Britten Sinfonietta on hand to do the honours, the percussion option is used here.   

The work is sung by the upper voices of Ex Cathedra Senior Academy of Vocal Music and Ex Cathedra Scholars. These young musicians acquit themselves admirably. Their singing is clear, committed and accurate; tightness of ensemble is a notable feature. There are two solo roles, taken by choir members: soprano Imogen Russell and alto Anna Semple do a fine job, singing with great assurance.

The music is most attractive. The opening few minutes are vigorous and strongly rhythmical, providing a keen test for the incisiveness of the choir; the test is passed with flying colours. At the end, this vivacious music returns to bring the piece to a strong conclusion. In between (from about 4:27) there’s an extended tranquil passage which gives the singers the chance to show their expressive side. The Ex Cathedra singers give a fine account of this reflective section. Earth and Sky is a vital, effective piece which, I should imagine, is great fun for young singers to learn and perform. To repeat a point I made earlier, though not written for Ex Cathedra, this work is a great example of the organisation’s educational outreach in action. 

Jeffrey Skidmore, who incisively and sympathetically conducts both the works on this disc, has championed Alec Roth’s music for some 15 years now. In the booklet he expresses his satisfaction that Roth’s music is now being widely performed and appreciated. In no small measure, that’s due to the recordings that Skidmore and Ex Cathedra have made; these have given Roth’s output welcome exposure and I hope this new disc will spread awareness of these two pieces.

The recordings were made live in the sympathetic acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall. Engineer Mike Hatch, working with producer Adrian Peacock, has achieved excellent results. All the various elements in each score – singers, soloists, instrumentalists – have been captured clearly and realistically by the microphones and a convincing balance has been achieved. I particularly like the way that the processing choir comes across at the start and end of The Traveller. In that same work, the speaking voice of Vayu Naidu has been very well balanced.

This disc, featuring excellent performances, is a welcome addition to the representation on disc of Alec Roth’s music.

John Quinn

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