MusicWeb-International.com, January 2010
The Clerks is an ensemble of twelve voices, formed at Oxford University in 1992. The ensemble mostly sings renaissance repertoire, and has released numerous discs. This is their first all-contemporary disc. It comprises works they have commissioned over the last ten years.
Robert Saxton’s Five Motets open the disc, written for a Proms performance in 2003, coinciding with the composer’s 50th birthday. These are songs which are both unified in terms of their language and subject matter and varied in their texture and mood. Sections of the music ranges from the frenetic and complex to the simple and monophonic. The work takes a journey as its central theme, and uses biblical texts in Latin and English poems written by the composer. The overall effect is highly enjoyable and this music has much to offer.
Thou wast present as on this day by Antony Pitts is texturally simpler than the Saxton, but no less effective. The harmonic language gives a contemporary twist to renaissance vocal music and there are some delicious dissonances which can be clearly savoured within their musical context. Unisons and subtle repetitions give the work added strength in preparation for the climactic ending.
The first of two Gabriel Jackson works on the disc, The Armed Man combines a poem by Robert Palmer with a traditional text, L’homme armé. This is a poignant work with some beautifully expressive moments. The two texts work well together and give a sense of dual dimensions.
Christopher Fox’s first work on the disc is the hypnotic A Spousal Verse, which uses varying levels of polyphony and dissonance throughout the poem, to excellent effect. The longer 20 ways to improve your life takes its text from small ads, newspaper texts, slogans and spam email, and has the effect of a commentary on modern life. The texts themselves provide a wonderful character, with fleeting moments of humour sometimes reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch – such as the occasional appearance of a billboard with a seemingly ridiculous text set with musical seriousness. This is a wonderfully light-hearted work which is set beautifully for this vocal ensemble, using a range of compositional techniques to create a highly successful tapestry of sound.
The Three Contrafacta are old songs given new texts and form the beginning of a new collection by The Clerks. The first of these, The Man who spills his soup sets comical words by Ian McMillan to an anonymous 14th century text. The effect is delightfully amusing and gives a surprising modernism to an early melody. Walter Frye’s So ys emprentid is treated to a new text in a more serious manner by Edward Wickham. This ballad is beautifully constructed with clear lines and a balanced sound. The last of the group is a setting of Post missarum sollempnia, an English motet with a Latin text. Ian Duhig’s reworking is close to an English translation of the original text. These three songs provide a new perspective on the original music, and are in many ways more fascinating than the originals.
The final work on the disc is Gabriel Jackson’s Te Deum, a work lasting almost ten minutes and commissioned in 2004. Based on the Te Deum plainchant melody, additional vocal lines weave around the original chant, creating an eerie multi-layered effect.
The quality of the singing is excellent throughout, with The Clerks creating a distinctive and individual sound. The ensemble should be congratulated for their work in commissioning new repertoire of such quality. This is an engaging disc which deserves to be heard.