Musicweb.com, June/ July 2006
My first encounter with the music of Francis Pott came through the superb CD by the vocal ensemble, Tenebrae, also on the Signum label, entitled ÎMother and Childâ. review www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2003/Aug03/Mother_and_Child.htm The two pieces included there alerted me to a resourceful and eloquent composer, an impression reinforced by subsequent hearings of a few other works by him. Now this outstanding new disc confirms that judgement.
At the heart of the programme is Pott’s a cappella Mass in five parts. If that very title didn’t tell you as much then the fact that William Byrd is mentioned no less than six times in the composer’s introductory liner note confirms that the sixteenth-century master has been a huge influence on Pott’s music, another acknowledged debt is to Kenneth Leighton. As Pott writes “·it is to Byrd, that venerable, artistically transcendent and yet vulnerably human face of enduring Englishness that I return·” In an inspired piece of programme planning the Mass is not sung straight through. Rather, other pieces are placed strategically round the movements. As Pott says, “the dispersal [of the Mass] to various points in the present programme alludes loosely to one’s experience of the Mass in a liturgical context while serving a plausible purpose regarding tonal continuity between successive tracks.” In fact, it’s not stretching the point too much, I think, to imagine that the various pieces of music on this disc could all be heard in succession as the music for a complete liturgical service. If not that, then at the very least the programme seems to me to work outstandingly well as a sequence even though all the pieces were composed as stand-alone works. So, since they work so well as a sequence I’ll comment on the pieces in the order in which they appear on the CD.
A Meditation, an a capella setting of lines from Centuries of Meditation by Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) serves as a very beautiful introit in this context. Pott makes use of some gorgeous harmonies and the choral textures are radiantly clear. As we’ll find throughout the programme, his responsiveness to words is natural and compelling.
Turn our Captivity is a setting of Psalm 126 for double choir with organ accompaniment. It begins in “mystical introspection”, to quote the composer. Much of the music in the opening few minutes is quite intense but eventually the music subsides quietly. Then, at around 5:17, at “Then said they among the heathen”, comes a much more agitated and dramatic section, with jagged rhythms propelling the music forward. The choral parts are very powerful and the organ is imposing and fiery. I did wonder at this point if the Dublin choir was just a little under-resourced on the top lines ö there are only six sopranos and four (female) altos, pitted against eight tenors and six basses. However, this climactic section is still well done. Then, at around 8:50, at the words “They that sow in tears shall weep in joy” an extended, quieter Epilogue starts to unfold, leading up to a spacious and very lovely “Amen”, beginning at 10:50. This is a most impressive piece of music. Then we hear the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass. The Kyrie is rarefied and beautiful: the higher voices sustain the central ‘Christe’. The Gloria starts smoothly and calmly but then becomes more vigorous and bouncy at ‘Laudamus te’, a section that displays no little polyphonic skill. From ‘Filius Patris’ the music is gorgeously homophonic. The closing pages, beginning at ‘Tu solus altissimus’ are much more vigorous; the music fairly dances.
Jesu Dulcis Memoria is a beautiful little piece, encompassing five verses of text. Each one is presented differently, with a lovely soprano solo ö well taken here ö the dominant feature of the fifth verse. The whole piece flows most convincingly, concluding with a seraphic ‘Amen’.
The Introduction, Toccata & Fugue for organ solo is a most imposing creation. Pott makes clear that it’s his homage to two French composer-organists, Jehan Alain and Maurice Duruf. The Introduction is powerful but only short, giving way to the dazzling, busy Toccata. This builds to a stirring climax after which the quieter, more reflective ending comes as something of a surprise. In the Fugue, which is tracked separately, Pott marries contrapuntal skill and technical brilliance. I detected ö or I thought I did ö several allusions to Alain’s celebrated Litanies in the final four minutes or so. The last few pages, using the full resources of the organ, are hugely impressive and Tristan Russcher obtains some massive sonorities from the cathedral’s organ. He gives a quite superb account of the whole work.
After this the quiet dignity and purity of the Sanctus and Benedictus provide an admirable and refreshing contrast. The ‘Osanna’ dances exuberantly. For A Remembrance Pott reverts to Traherne, setting more lines from Centuries of Meditation. He writes of this piece “The music seeks to preserve the sense of a quiet meditative centre despite a few expansive moments, and to maintain some consistency in its deployment of polyphonic vocal freedom against an organ part which remains both discreet and discrete.” The result is a glowing piece that deeply impressed me. It’s interesting, I think, that in his note Pott mentions that Gerald Finzi was another composer drawn to set Traherne’s words. Although the musical vocabulary and syntax of Finzi and Pott are very different it seems to me that A Remembrance inhabits much the same territory of gentle ecstasy that one encounters in much of Finzi’s choral music, especially the sublime Lo the Full, Final Sacrifice. The Agnus Dei accounts for about one third of the whole length of the Mass in five parts. There’s a gentle fervour to this music that I find most rewarding. It’s perhaps in this movement most of all that Pott looks back across the span of the centuries to Byrd. It’s lovely music and very satisfying to hear ö as, I imagine, it must be to sing. The intricate strands of polyphony interweave luminously, especially at the very end. The last few bars are wonderful. Finally, as a tranquil envoi, we hear O Lord, Support us all the Day Long. Cardinal Newman’s wonderful, consoling prayer is set to music of touching simplicity. This is an eloquent and truly moving little piece.
So, some marvelous, original and effective music by a composer who genuinely has something to say. The effect and impact of the music is all the greater for having been gathered into such a satisfying sequence. All the music was written for particular events or people and as Pott makes clear in his note, several of the pieces have deeply personal significance for him. Though the music is often not overtly emotional, as you hear it you feel it is, nonetheless, written from the heart.
The performances are splendid. The choir has been excellently trained by Judy Martin and they sing with precision, tonal beauty and complete conviction. The sound quality is first rate, as is the documentation. I am impatient to hear more of Francis Pott’s music, especially his latest work, The Cloud of Unknowing, written for the Vasari Singers and premiered by them only in May 2006. It’s excellent news that the piece is to be recorded by Signum next year. I can’t wait. For now, this recording will do very nicely and I hope it will win a still wider audience for the music of Francis Pott. This is likely to be one of my Recordings of 2006 and I recommend it with the greatest possible enthusiasm.
The Church Times, 26th January 2007
“…The same kind of passionate commitment can be found in the music of Francis Pott, who began his musical career as a chorister of New College, Oxford, and later sang in the choir of Winchester Cathedral. “Meditations and Remembrances” (SIGCD 080) is an appropriate title for a recent Signum recording of his music, which follows on from the exciting performance by Jeremy Filsell of Pott‚s large-scale organ piece Christus, also on Signum (SIGCD 062, double disc).
The title of the disc derives from two lovely extended settings of Traherne, A Meditation and A Remembrance. There is some bracing dramatic writing midway through the anthem “Turn our captivity‰ (Psalm 126), and all the pieces on this disc share with Pott‚s compelling Mass in Five Parts an attractive gift for natural, easy-flowing, shrewdly engineered counterpoint, while embracing a warm harmonic range.
Most pleasing of all about this Signum disc is the unshowy and yet vastly proficient and thoughtfully balanced singing that Judy Martin draws from the choir of Christ Church, Dublin. An appealing soprano solo uplifts “Jesu, dulcis memoria‰ attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux. Pott‚s handsomely varied Introduction, Toccata and Fugue for organ, played here by Tristan Russcher, may well encourage listeners to seek out Filsell‚s powerful recording of Christus.”