Lazarus Requiem is the latest in a series of large-scale Christian-inspired choral works by Hawes. It’s also something of a textual and musical oddity, combining the words of the Requiem Mass with original text and Gospel adaptations by Hawes’s brother Andrew, a priest. This two-track narrative is reflected in the work’s musical shape, which intersperses the Latin rite with a series of pictorial tableaux of the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. It’s a structure that doesn’t always convince. But what the Lazarus Requiem does do – and to striking effect – is bring into sharp relief Hawes’s unerring gift for evocative orchestral texture and beautiful melodic line. In this regard he’s brilliantly served by Thomas Walker as Christ: the young Scottish artist’s glorious, youthful and effortless tenor rings out with utter conviction and real musical presence.
Despite occasional pitch challenges, the Exeter Philharmonic Choir is equally committed, well supported by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In sum, an unusual and heartfelt addition to the catalogue and a work that could well earn a place in the repertoire of more ambitious amateur choral societies.
With his recent Lazarus Requiem Patrick Hawes follows two traditions. One is that of the consolatory Requiem such as those by Fauré or Duruflé, rather than the more dramatic settings by the likes of Berlioz or Verdi. The other is the tradition of incorporating into the Latin Mass various relevant texts from other sources. I suppose Benjamin Britten was the most obvious exemplar in War Requiem but other composers have followed the trail he blazed. However, to the best of my knowledge no one has previously combined a setting of the Requiem with the story of the raising by Christ of Lazarus from the dead. It’s an inspired idea and in a way it’s surprising that this hasn’t been done before – though it hadn’t occurred to me before, I admit. The Lazarus story, as related in St. John’s Gospel is such a logical fit with the idea of consolation in death rather than “fire and brimstone”. Perhaps it needs a theologian to make the link and the original idea for this work came from the composer’s brother, Andrew Hawes, who just happens to be an Anglican priest. Andrew adapted the Gospel narrative for the Lazarus Requiem and also provided some original words.
The structure of the work is quite simple but very effective. The sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead that are used are essentially those used by Fauré – Requiem Aeternam, Kyrie, Offertorium, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Lux Aeterna. There are two differences from Fauré’s model: the Hawes brothers omit the Pie Jesu and in the Lux Aeterna the portion of the text that mentions Lazarus is left out since that refers to a different Lazarus. These sections are sung by the full choir and orchestra, joined in one or two movements by one or both of the female soloists. Interspersed within the movements of the Mass are six tableaux. In these the Gospel story is narrated by a semi-chorus (here the Exeter Cathedral choir) and the three soloists sing the words of Jesus and of Lazarus’s two sisters. The accompaniment in the tableaux is much reduced, consisting of muted strings, harp and, rather oddly, a baritone saxophone; a quartet of horns is also used to accompany Christ’s words.
Structurally the piece works successfully: the tableaux fit well into the Mass movements. The music, while not desperately innovative – and none the worse for that – is accessible and melodious and sounds to be well written for the voices. The music is directly expressive and communicates itself to the listener. I should also imagine it’s rewarding to sing. The performance, under the composer’s direction, is a good one. Tenor Thomas Walker impresses in the role of Christ. His voice is clear and well-focused, he projects strongly and his diction is crystal clear. In the third tableau there’s an ardent, high-lying solo for the tenor at the words “I am the resurrection and the life” and Walker delivers this passage with ringing conviction. In the next tableau, the fourth, there’s a lyrical solo to what I presume are original words by Andrew Hawes and Walker sings this with fine feeling.
The female soloists are good also. Elin Manahan Thomas has already featured on two previous CDs of Patrick Hawes’ music (SIGCD162, SIGCD178) ; on this latest disc she serves his music well. I mentioned earlier that Hawes doesn’t set the Pie Jesu, so often a source of soprano solos. Instead he gives his soprano a significant solo in the Benedictus – as well as material in other movements – and Miss Manahan Thomas sings this touching movement very well. The mezzo role is less substantial but Rachel Lloyd’s contributions are all very good. She and Elin Manahan Thomas join the choir in the mellifluous Lux Aeterna at the end.
The choral singing is excellent. Not long ago I heard the Exeter Cathedral Choir on a very good disc of Psalm settings (review). They’re on good form here also, delivering the semi chorus part very well. This must have been a major assignment for the Exeter Philharmonic Choir and they acquit themselves very well indeed. Their singing is consistently assured, full toned and sensitive and they provide an excellent advertisement for the quality of amateur British choral societies.
Those people who think that recording is an artificial process will have a field day with this recording for the choirs were recorded separately from the orchestra and soloists. In that sense it may not be a “true” performance but I can assure readers that, in Eric Morecambe’s immortal phrase “you can’t see the join” – or, in this case, hear them. I’m sure there were good logistical and financial reasons why the recording had to be made in this way and prospective purchasers need have no fear that they will experience a recording that is anything other than seamlessly integrated.
I can well imagine the Lazarus Requiem becoming popular with choral societies and with their audiences for it is an attractive, sincere and thoughtful piece. This very good first recording should bring it to the attention of a wider audience.
Ambitious and strong concept composition
Patrick Hawes presents his most ambitious work to date here, in partnership with his brother Andrew who conceived the text for the project. With collaborators including tenor Thomas Walker, sopranos Elin Manahan-Thomas and Rachael Lloyd, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Exeter Philharmonic and Cathedral Choirs, this was swiftly set to be a landmark release . The merging of the Requiem Mass with the story of Lazarus is interspersed with a series of delicate tableaux. Fully realised characterisation and superior performances make this a powerful and emotional work. Recommended.