After listening to these discs I was struck by the beautiful contours of Alec Roth’s music. It is all finely constructed, with a profound sense of line. Firmly tonal in base, Roth has a strong melodic gift and an ear for texture. No wonder Ex Cathedra like his music and have performed a considerable amount of it.
Roth is perhaps best known for his collaborations with the writer Vikram Seth. They have collaborated on a number of works, including Songs in time of War which is also available from Signum Records. Shared Ground andPonticelli are the second of their collaborations, both premiered in 2007 by Ex Cathedra.
For this project a third presence hovers in the background, that of George Herbert the 17th century poet. Seth discovered Herbert’s poetry in his teens and in 2003 bought George Herbert’s house. In 2007, whilst staying in the house in Seth’s absence, Roth set the six poems that make up Shared Ground. He also wrote the work for solo violinPonticelli inspired by the brides in the gardens of the house.
Seth’s texts for Shared Ground are linked directly to specific George Herbert poems; though Seth’s poems lack Herbert’s intense spirituality. So that, for instance, Lost, the first poem of the group uses the same rhyming scheme as Herbert’s poem Paradise, where each verse uses a single word at the end of each line, but pared of a letter each time (Spray, Pray, Ray). In fact Herbert cheats and his first verse uses Grow, Row and Ow (instead of Owe).
The two works are presented separately on the CD, but Roth’s idea is that they will stand either as separate works or interlinked ones with the choral movements interspersed with the violin solos. The CD booklet includes instructions as to how to programme your CD so that the two works can be played in an interlinked manner.
This is perhaps a mistake as most people will not be inclined to go to the bother of doing the programming and so will miss a striking experience. For me the two works are far stronger linked than they are as separate entities.
Shared Ground is a beautifully wrought set of part-songs, six in all, very English in feel and harking back to English music of the 20th century and earlier.
Roth describes Ponticelli as a partita; it is a suite for unaccompanied violin, here played by Philippe Honoré.
Shared Ground and Ponticelli are on the second CD of this 2 CD set, slightly poor value at 91 minutes of music in total. The recital finishes rather aptly with a fine setting of a George Herbert poem, The Flower.
The first disc presents a group of Roth’s choral works which have no connection with Vikram Seth.
Earthrise is a three movement piece setting Latin biblical texts. It has a slightly curious eco-political message, with links to the first Apollo landing on the moon and images of the earth from the moon. This might have worked better with a grittier text, rather than Roth’s well chosen verses from Job, Isaiah, Psalms and Proverbs. The titles encapsulate the work’s message: Man’s Desire to Explore and Exploit, Contemplation of the Earth Seen from Space and A Plea for True Wisdom and Understanding.
The great interest of the piece is that it was written for Ex Cathedra’s fortieth anniversary and is in forty parts. In doing this Roth pays homage to music of the past. He has created a work of great beauty with long ethereal interweaving lines. Even so it does seem aurally a little divorced from the message, though Roth captures something of visionary intensity.
Earthrise is followed by a work, Hymn to Gaia, which sets different Greek texts of the hymn to Gaia. Here Roth adds a drum and a children’s choir to create some infectious and highly popular textures. Finally, on the first CD, we hear Sol Justitiae to a Latin text by a 19th century principal of Hatfield Hall, University of Durham.
Alec Roth is a fluent writer who can create choral textures of great beauty and melodic interest. His music is well put together and finely crafted. Judging by Ex Cathedra’s enthusiasm for this composer, I suspect his music is rather satisfying to sing. For me as a listener there was a little something missing; that grit in the oyster. Repeated listening left me feeling pleasantly entertained but unfulfilled. I wanted the music to move me in deeper ways than the superficial; I wanted depth and intensity as well as gorgeous textures.
Perhaps part of my response can be attributed to my being a composer. I don’t want Roth to write my music, certainly not. I want him to tax my brain, stretch my ear and challenge my emotions.
Not everyone will agree with me. The fact that Ex Cathedra has had such success with Roth’s music testifies to this.
The CD booklet includes an article on the music with extensive quotes from Roth and from Seth, plus full texts and translations.
The performances from Ex Cathedra under their conductor Jeffrey Skidmore are well nigh perfect. Alec Roth must be pleased with this highly polished and finished product.
In January 2010 I attended one of a series of concerts presented in Birmingham by Ex Cathedra to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. This particular concert featured a cappella choral pieces in forty parts and included works by Alessandro Striggio, Thomas Tallis and Gabriel Jackson. Also on the programme was Earthrise by Alec Roth, commissioned for the occasion and receiving its first performance. I was greatly impressed at a first hearing and, reviewing the concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard, I concluded by saying “I’m impatient to hear it again”. Well now, with this disc the opportunity has come and with it the chance to evaluate the piece at more than a single hearing.
Having had that opportunity I’m firmly of the view that Earthrise is a very fine work indeed. My initial impressions were confirmed but there’s no substitute for hearing a work several times. In brief, the commission from Ex Cathedra, which arrived in 2009, coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and gave Roth his inspiration. Earthrise is divided into three sections and is scored for unaccompanied choir, divided into forty parts. (I haven’t seen a score but I suspect that the full division into forty parts is not achieved all the time.) The texts that Alec Roth has set – in Latin – are drawn from the Psalms, and the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Job and Proverbs. In addition the work begins with a setting of one of the Advent Great ‘O’ Antiphons and another of the Antiphons, reprising material from the first setting, is heard at the very end.
It seems to me that Roth has selected some wonderful, rich texts and, having done so, that he has set the words in a way that emphasises their potency and which brings out the powerful imagery in the texts. I was greatly impressed by the sense of space and awe that Roth brings to the second section, entitled ‘Contemplation of The Earth Seen from Space’. Even better in some ways is the final section, ‘A Plea For True Wisdom And Understanding. This is the most extensive movement and the bulk of it is a setting of words from the Book of Proverbs. I suspect that it’s here, above all, that the music divides into forty parts; certainly the musical texture is the richest we’ve heard in the whole piece. For quite a lot of the time the main idea is a slow hymn-like melody, which proceeds slowly and serenely. Round the hymn other sections of the choir sing decorative scalic figures.
This rather put me in mind of the finale of the Second Symphony of Sibelius; Roth’s music has a comparable sense of majesty but it also has a grave beauty which, when combined with the words he has selected, is very moving.
It is intelligent planning to follow Earthrise with Hymn to Gaia because for the ancient Greeks Gaia was the Earth goddess. Actually, the piece comprises two hymns. As well as an adult choir Roth involves a children’s choir. The adults sing the hymns, in harmony and in the original Greek, while the children sing, simultaneously and in unison, an English translation. The music for the children is not straightforward, I suspect, but if I may say so Roth’s work seems to be an object lesson in how to expose young musicians to contemporary music and involve them in its performance in a way that challenges them and yet is not impossibly daunting. Ex Cathedra, with its well-established Academy for younger singers, is perfectly equipped to perform this interesting work. The whole of the second disc fits together on several levels. Over the last four years Alec Roth has collaborated on several projects with the distinguished author Vikram Seth (b. 1952). In fact Seth has just published a book, The Rivered Earth (Penguin, 2011), which describes their collaborations, includes the libretti for all their joint works and contains an account by Seth of “the pleasures and pains of working with a composer.” A disc that included two of the earlier Seth/Roth collaborations was reviewed by the late Bob Briggs in October 2008. Bob was impressed by the music on that disc and I fancy he would have relished these pieces also. He described Roth’s music as “music of strength, originality and sensuality” and he went on to say that “Roth’s is a true original English voice.” I hadn’t read those words until after I’d finished listening to these new discs but I think the music bears out Bob’s judgement. Common to that disc and to this one is the violinist Philippe Honoré who, I now learn, is the dedicatee of Seth’s acclaimed novel, An Equal Music. Here he plays Alec Roth’s five- movement Partita for solo violin, Ponticelli (‘little bridges’).
Here we come to the other person who binds this second disc together: the English poet, George Herbert. As a boy in India, Vikram Seth first encountered Herbert’s poetry and gradually he came to know it much better and to love it. As he writes in the booklet notes, in 2003 he acquired the very house, near Salisbury, where George Herbert lived from 1630 until his death in 1633. The grounds of the house include five little bridges – hence the title of the violin work. In 2007, Seth, who was in India at the time, wrote the six poems that Alec Roth sets in Shared Ground. Indeed, during Seth’s absence Roth was staying in his house – Herbert’s former abode – and he wrote the music at that time. Seth says of the poems: “Though the mood and spirit of these verses are my own, they are formally modelled on [specific] poems by Herbert.” Fascinatingly, Alec Roth has so designed Shared Ground and Ponticelli that the two works, though independent compositions, can be played together, in which case the first movement of the choral work is followed by the first movement of Ponticelli and so on. Though the works are treated separately on this CD Signum include in the booklet a note explaining how you can programme your CD player to combine the two works in this way: it works very well and makes for intriguing listening.
There’s some very fine choral writing in Shared Ground. Once again Alec Roth proves his ability to respond acutely to words in the music that he writes. He also displays a seemingly intuitive understanding of how to write for voices – there’s always clarity in the textures though they are often very rich. I must confess that I don’t yet understand all of Vikram Seth’s poetic imagery, especially the words of the sixth and final poem, entitled ‘This’. It’s in this movement that Roth’s music is the most complex and texturally rich in the whole work. There’s some very beautiful homophonic choral writing in the first two settings while the fifth is the most energetic. Perhaps the most remarkable movement is the fourth one.
In this, if I interpret the poetry correctly, Seth describes his decision to buy George Herbert’s former house. As an appendix, if you will, he adds to the end of the poem an inscription, by Herbert, that is carved on a stone in the north wall of the house. This is sung by the choir; previously in the setting, the role of the choir has been largely to provide support for a tenor soloist – the excellent Samuel Boden. As I listened I thought more and more of Vaughan Williams’ wonderful ‘Love bade me welcome’ from his Five Mystical Songs and I’ve since realised that this is the very Herbert poem that Seth had taken for his model in writing this particular poem. I should hasten to say that Roth’s setting is no pastiche of RVW’s; if anything, perhaps it’s a homage. But I think this, above all, supports Bob Brigg’s contention that Roth’s is a true English voice. Is ‘Host’ a homage to Vaughan Williams? I don’t know. Nor do I know if Ponticelli is a homage to Bach but there seems to me to be more than a nod in the direction of Bach’s solo violin partitas. The first movement, in addition, seemed to me to have in the writing a whiff of an Indian raga; is this a compliment to Vikram Seth? The second movement is a songful, meditative soliloquy while the central movement consists of slow, searching music of no little depth. Here, I think, is real Bachian gravitas. The fifth and final movement is the longest and the most varied though, thematically, it remains tightly organised. Here, in particular, the writing makes significant demands on the soloist’s virtuosity but Philippe Honoré is equal to all these demands. Whether heard alone or in combination with Shared Ground it seems to me that Ponticelli is a most interesting piece.
The disc concludes with a setting for choir of a Herbert poem but The Flower is not included just as a filler. Not only is it a lovely setting in its own right; Roth used the thematic material in the second movement of Ponticelli.
There’s a lot of important and stimulating music here – all recorded for the first time – and, without exception, the performances are fully worthy of the music. Jeffrey Skidmore and his excellent singers clearly believe in Alec Roth’s music and not only do their performances demonstrate very high standards of singing, they also radiate conviction. I’m sure the composer must be thrilled with the advocacy that his music receives here. The recorded sound is excellent and the documentation is very good. I hope these recordings will disseminate Alec Roth’s music to a wide audience.
Rather like the film of the book, this ‘concert of the album’ featured material from Ex Cathedra’s recently released 2-CD tribute to Alec Roth. For a contemporary composer to receive such acclaim must be extremely rewarding.
Jeffrey Skidmore and his choir are obviously fans, as their finely polished, committed performances (including super tenor soloist Samuel Boden) demonstrated.
Two works, Shared Ground and Earthrise, were premièred by Ex Cathedra not long ago, and on Sunday we heard the world première of a third major piece, Hymn to Gaia.
Roth’s style – a lingua franca mixture of Tavener, Whitacre, Lauridsen and others – is very accessible and immediately appealing. He defines and to an extent empowers Shared Ground with five pieces for solo violin (Ponticelli, played with expressive bravura by Philippe Honoré) to connect the six movements.
On the other hand Earthrise, a remarkably accomplished 40-part motet written for Ex Cathedra’s 40th, offers a more fundamental sense of wonder at Man’s relationship to the Earth and cosmos, utilising luminous close-harmony textures to suggest an elevated sense of light and space.
In Hymn to Gaia Roth has gone the other way, employing chant-like melodies and textural simplicity to reflect the ancient Greek text. After so much, occasionally over-extended, choral complexity its elemental directness was refreshingly welcome – and the children’s choir (Junior Academy) and young percussionist Simone Rebello were excellent.