The Cloud of Unknowing


Following its successful premiere performance earlier this year, Francis Pott’s highly anticipated recording of The Cloud of Unknowing is likely to be musical milestone and a choral great.

Drawing together a variety of texts and musical influences, Pott weaves together a deep and emotional work with an ethos reminiscent of Michael Tippett’s ‘War Oratorio’.


The Vasari Singers
James Gilchrist, tenor
Jeremy Filsell, organ
Jeremy Backhouse, conductor


What people are saying

“Jeremy Backhouse’s excellent Vasari Singers performed it not just accurately, but with bags of heart and soul as well. A sincere, intelligent and admirably unsensational meditation on the darkness at the heart of man. The Cloud of Unknowing deserves a concert life beyond this moving performance.”

The Times

Francis Pott

James Gilchrist
Jeremy Filsell
The Vasari Singers
Jeremy Backhouse

Release date:1st Sep 2007
Order code:SIGCD105
Barcode: 635212010525

The Gramophone

In anticipation of their 25th anniversary (in 2005) the Vasari Singers commissioned pieces from 10 composers, among them Francis Pott, who produced a setting of Psalm 23. This consoling, meditative piece – conceived as a section of an extended anthem – subsequently developed into this oratorio which lasts an hour and a half. A clear indication of its themes for reconciliation and tolerance in a violent world and a condemnation of extremism can be found in the score’s inscription “To the memory of Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in Iraq or beyond.” Potts combines biblical texts from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Psalms) with William Blake and war poetry. One of the most chilling sections culminates in a repeated chant of the line “The dead are all on the same side”, a translation from the French Great War poet René Arcos.

Malcolm Riley

The Observer, 29th July 2007

The enormously gifted Vasari Singers and their conductor Jeremy Backhouse have made unparalleled efforts in recent years to revitalise and replenish the modern choral repertoire. This latest example is an immensely moving oratorio for tenor, choir and organ, written in response to worldwide conflict generally but particularly to the July 7th London bombings. Pott chooses texts from the psalms, Blake, war poets and mystical tracts to illustrate mankind’s capacity both for cruelty and self-sacrifice, setting them to music of great power and beauty.

Stephen Pritchard

Classic FM Magazine, October 2007

In its original guise, the medieval text known as The Cloud of Unknowing served as a guide to the contemplation of Christ’s goodness. Francis Pott, in his acclaimed commission for the Vasari Singers’ silver jubilee, provides a 21st-century take on the dark soul of humanity. His Cloud conveys the almost unbearable reality of a world riven by fundamentalist ideologies, whether of the Islamic or global capitalist kind. Dedicated to ‘Margaret Hassan and al innocent lives lost in Iraq or beyond’, Pott’s monumental, eloquent take on senseless violence and shameful hypocrisy offers a shield to the spirit against those who would destroy it. Unmissable.

Andrew Stewart

The Sunday Times, 2nd September 2007, ****

This work, written for the excellent Vasari Singers’ 25th anniversary, deals with big things. Dedicated to Margaret Hassan “and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq”, it is an extraordinary expression of Pott’s battle with ebbing faith, with a poignantly questioning setting of Psalm 23, written as a response to the Beslan tragedy, at its heart. Pott’s music is unapologetically conservative in style, but the tenacity and honesty with which he engages in self-debate is deeply moving, the humanistic interpretation of the Crucifixion as a symbol of the persistent suffering Everyman tenable for people of all faiths and none. This performance is both passionate and precise, with magnificent contributions from Gilchrist and Filsell.

Stephen Pettitt

Muso Magazine, September 2007

The Cloud of Unknowing has much in common with Britten’s War Requiem both works are lengthy (Francis Pott’s opus is pushing 90 minutes), inveigh heavily against the iniquities of contemporary armed conflict, use a range of texts for the vocal settings and are unrelievedly stark in the musical representation of their bleak message. Easy listening this certainly isn’t.

The piece is, however, treated to a magnificent CD debut here by the same team that premiered it a year ago in London. Vasari Singers is the choir that commissioned the piece and Pott creates for them a hugely testing series of scenarios to articulate, ranging from a setting of Psalm 137 (with its images of infant brains dashed against the stones) to the contrasting placidity of The Lord is my Shepherd, set for women’s voices alone. Both technically and emotionally the work is dauntingly demanding, but the Vasaris respond unflinchingly.

There are two other major protagonists. One is a tenor soloist, intended by Pott as ‘an anthropomorphic presence: part Christ, part Everyman’. It’s a long part and constantly taxing but James Gilchrist delivers it with huge distinction. The other is Jeremy Filsell, whose virtuoso organ accompaniment is virtually never silent and plays a major role in what one commentator has termed this ‘meditation on the darkness at the heart of man’.

Musical Pointers, September 2007

The score carries the dedication “In memoriam Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq.” Its text is drawn from a wide range of sources encompassing religious and humanist traditions, putting it outside the conventions of Anglican worship. The tenor soloist represents part Christ, part Everyman, sometimes both at once.

In character it is a work of pessimism and deep foreboding. The opening sections in particular pose a huge challenge for the choir, who are required to sing very quietly with every syllable stretched out to its fullest extent, often well beyond the point where the words become indistinguishable and we are indeed faced with a cloud of unknowing.

But these “clouds” disperse to be replaced by visions of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, intersecting with the mysticism of William Blake – potentially a powerfully heady mix, but one which I found to be perversely lacking in either menace or horror.

An extended setting of Psalm 23, which the composer describes as a retreat from the noise of battle, marks a transition phase and the breakpoint between the two CDs.

From here on the work settles into a quiet melancholy, a mood which sits very comfortably with Pott’s style, and a composition of significant stature emerges. Words become clear and telling, and in an atmosphere of gentle supplication the agony and the anguish of a conflict torn world are revealed.

James Gilchrist proves a tower of strength, pouring his very soul into it and weighting and colouring each phrase with loving care. The Vasari Singers acquit themselves more than honourably, surmounting both the complexity of the task and its length.

The organ is well played by Jeremy Filsell and the acoustic (Tonbridge School Chapel) is generous allowing the final passages to fade into a radiance of other-worldly ecstasy which would have done justice to Gounod.

Serena Fenwick

International Record Review, November 2007

This recording constitutes a zeroing-in on fundamental principles for Francis Pott, a reaffirmation of some kind of other-worldly scheme, even if it isn’t turning out to be the brand of religious faith he once ardently subscribed to. Perhaps, as Pott proposes in his brimful insert notes, an alternative higher truth is to be found in the notion of ‘a Crucifixion perpetually re-enacted within the atrocities of successive ages’. Psalm 23 triggers in the composer an allegorical affinity for one particularly repugnant tragedy in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004, although the music’s ‘brief’ reaches somewhat further; indeed it pays homage to ‘all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq’.

This recording constitutes a zeroing-in on fundamental principles for Francis Pott, a reaffirmation of some kind of other-worldly scheme, even if it isn’t turning out to be the brand of religious faith he once ardently subscribed to. Perhaps, as Pott proposes in his brimful insert notes, an alternative higher truth is to be found in the notion of ‘a Crucifixion perpetually re-enacted within the atrocities of successive ages’. Psalm 23 triggers in the composer an allegorical affinity for one particularly repugnant tragedy in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004, although the music’s ‘brief’ reaches somewhat further; indeed it pays homage to ‘all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq’.

The Vasari Singers under the baton of Jeremy Backhouse have an impressive curriculum vitae that spans some 27 years, a band of musicians clearly dedicated to the furthering of quality of British music: Vasari has commissioned and premièred nearly 20 important works in less than a decade, producing as many CDs. This disc seems likely to prove an apotheosis among apotheoses for Vasari, such is the prodigious care with which they tackle Pott’s passionate and apocryphal – or should that be apocalyptic? – masterpiece. Gilchrist carries his multiple identity with indomitable fervour, the luxury of his tonal resources securing Pott’s vision as unswervingly as the choir itself achieves. However, to describe the music as ‘moving’ somehow seems as unsatisfactory as to sum up the tragedies Pott evokes as ‘shocking’ : just a word. Rather, there is a meditative counterpart to this music, an experience which can really evolve only by taking it in a single hearing. Pott’s juxtaposition of Biblical fragments with texts by William Blake and Odysseus Elytis emerges as an entirely wholesome libretto, and the choir manages to clasp the image throughout, with Jeremy Filsell’s organ-playing sealing the textures with unshakable sensitivity.

Particularly menacing in its fantastical design is ‘Is this He that was transfigured’, an amorphous musical space that might have been filled by Arvo Pärt just as readily, or perhaps even Herbert Howells. In fact, it is the calculated exploitation of that most indispensable of musical building blocks – absolute silence – that fixes these choral and solo events together so utterly convincingly. The choir is never more stirring than in ‘In one little time may heaven be won and lost’, a chilling yet strangely conciliatory entreaty that trickles forward from an unending musical breath.

The sound-blend in this recording is never short of compelling, even in the more sinuous strands of music to be found in the passing of the penultimate ‘Amen’ from choir to soloist and back again, leading to ‘The love in him was such’. It was recorded in Tonbridge School earlier this year; the acoustic is sublimely appropriate and the organ colours wonderfully vivid. This is something of a tour de force for Francis Pott and Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers, and a disc of some distinction.

Mark Tanner

Musical Opinion, November/ December 2007

Francis Pott’s large-scale “Humanist-Requiem” as it may be termed, of 2005, for Tenor, Chorus and Organ, fulfilled a commission marking the Vasari Singers’ quarter-century, combining texts articulating the composer’s sincerity in conveying his “personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn” relative to those on-going conflicts threatening the world in the 21st-Century’s first decade.

Such sentiments resonate strongly with many people and Pott’s deeply felt, directly expressed score has considerable emotional impact. The juxtaposition of liturgical and non-liturgical texts reflects such examples as Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Britten’s War Requiem.

Musically, Pott’s language will not offend either composer’s admirers, nor those familiar with the language of Maunder, Stainer, Parry, Stanford, Elgar or Ireland, for his work has clearly been irrigated from their examples, subsumed into a fluent, immediately expressive style.

The composer could hardly wish for a better performance than this. The Vasari Singers’ quality and commitment is of the highest, with James Gilchrist an unfailingly outstanding soloist. Jeremy Filsell accompanies superbly, and much praise is due to Jeremy Backhouse, who secures a performance of compelling artistry. The recording quality is admirable. The composer provides detailed Notes.

Robert Matthew-Walker

British composer Francis Pott’s oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing was premiered in highly emotional circumstances on 13 May 2006. The piece is a vivid plea for peace in a world torn apart by violence, the inscription in the score reading: ‘To the memory of Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in Iraq or beyond’. Consequently, when the work was first performed at St Pancras’ Church, only feet away from the 7 July bus explosion of the previous year, it captured the mourning of many of those present who still had to come to terms with the damage that surrounded them.

The oratorio was commissioned by the superlative Vasari Singers, who return to St John’s Smith Square on 16 June 2007 for an eclectic programme of Bach and James Macmillan (amongst others). The choir celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2005 by commissioning ten new works, of which this was one.

But what started out as an extended anthem of perhaps twenty minutes turned into a ninety-minute cantata for tenor, choir and organ.
Pott throws everything at it in terms of texts, combining parts of the Bible with verses by war poets. There are interesting juxtapositions of meaning and themes, portraying internal and external troubles of the spirit and soul. In particular, lines from poems by people like René Arcos (a French poet of the First World War) – artists who experienced the destruction of life in different but no less harrowing circumstances than those who witnessed the 7 July attack – inject the piece with poignancy.
But whereas this combination of secular and religious texts worked so well for Britten in his War Requiem, it does not always convince me in Pott’s case. On his website, he highlights his juxtaposition of ‘the taboo words from Psalm 137 which extol the dashing of infant brains against the stones (thereby calling children to atone for the enmity of their parents)’ with the pastoral calm of Psalm 23. I feel slightly uncomfortable about this manipulation of the texts for dramatic purposes. And I feel the interpretation of the words is forced and misleading. Psalm 137 is a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, illustrating the frustration of the exiled Jews and their understandable feelings of vengeance against the Babylonians who have enslaved them (which is a scenario familiar from Verdi’s Nabucco, reviewed last week). To extract from the Psalm the line ‘blessed shall he be that taketh their children and dasheth them against the stones’ gives a false impression of what the text is really about: surely the Jews mean that they have to conquer future generations of Babylonians to regain their country, but here it feels that Pott is saying that the Bible condones the destruction of children. Although I fully admit it is a personal reaction, I feel this is an inflammatory message to be giving out about Christianity – and by extension, no more commendable or responsible than the Islamic extremism that Pott condemns.

Musically, too, the work is sprawling and difficult to get to grips with (and I may not be alone in this). Indeed, I felt aural indigestion within minutes of the start, largely because Pott’s compositional procedures are so limited. Too often, the whole choir is singing as loudly as possible, with the voices spread out to extremes; the organ repeatedly plays dense diminished chords in banal rhythms, apparently in an attempt to conjure up Armageddon but to little emotional effect on me; every so often, the tenor soloist pops up to sing a melancholy verse very quietly, but the word-setting is uninspired and the vocal line formless and forgettable; and in general, there is such monotony about the whole affair that one wonders why the piece was ever extended to such a size. I was particularly surprised by the poverty of the organ writing, given that Pott is a trained organist and pianist (though the two instruments require very different talents). Sometimes we find him composing a single melodic line for the organ with no accompaniment and to little effect; at other points, the organist seems just to attack the instrument without discernment or purpose, drawing dense clusters of sound but no music. I understand why others might enjoy the fullness of the choral sound or the relevance of the libretto, but I’m afraid I found it all terribly worthy but uninspiring.

saving grace of the CD is that the performances are all as terrific as one has come to expect from the Vasari Singers and their collaborators. Jeremy Backhouse battles valiantly with the size of the piece, channelling the massive forces in the right direction, while James Gilchrist is a committed and lyrical tenor soloist. Jeremy Filsell also works extremely hard at the organ, but with such material he was fighting a losing battle. The choir itself gives a superlative performance, evoking the best of the English oratorio tradition in their vigorous and uplifting singing.

Heaven forbid that I should go down in history for condemning a piece of music that will be hailed as a masterpiece in the future. But after listening to The Cloud of Unknowing three times now, I can only say that its effectiveness eludes me.

Dominic McHugh

Organists Review, November 2007

Paring my favourite adult choir with the excellent soloists of organist Jeremy Filsell and tenor James Gilchrist, is an instant winner.

Furthermore, to combine all three with Pott’s exciting oratorio is a must, and I wholeheartedly recommend this recording of The Cloud of Unknowing, an interesting and powerful response to the wars and atrocities of the past five years and specifically to the 7 July bombings in London.

Not having heard any of Pott’s compositions before, I was immediately won over by his 80 minute work. The drama this challenging piece demands is captured by the brilliance of the choir’s performance and Filsell copes with an immensely difficult organ part bringing the work to life with some wonderful registrations. The text is drawn from a number of sources: The Psalms, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Traherne and the modern Greek poet, Odysseus Elytis, creating a powerful voice to demonstrate the conflict and instability of an uneasy world.

The emotion is perceptively displayed without any sentimentalism by the superb Vasari Singers, who treat the quieter sections with complete sensitivity. There are two CDs and the second opens with the brilliant James Gilchrist setting the scene and ambience as he skilfully interweaves with the choir. The wonderful evocative ending is beautifully executed with a hushed reverence as the choir fades away to leave the organ on its own for a few seconds and then cleverly, the recording continues with silence for a little while longer to capture the moment and emphasise the experience. A riveting and outstanding performance and excellent recording.

Andrew Palmer

MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year 2007

This is a recording that I have been impatient to hear for some time. I believe that this eloquent new piece is a work of great importance and one that not only stands firmly in the proud tradition of English choral music but that also carries that tradition forward and enriches it. It’s a hugely compelling work, which I find very convincing. It was written for the performers who have made this recording. James Gilchrist sings with burning conviction, as do the Vasari Singers. The virtuoso organ part is played by Jeremy Filsell in a manner that is beyond praise. A superb and thought provoking issue.

John Quinn

Church Music Quarterly, March 2008

The Cloud of Unknowing is a collection of texts featuring cross references of texts from Biblical and poetic sources. It was originally just the setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) that the extraordinary Vasari Singers commissioned, but this eventually grew into this 90 minute tour-de-force. It also is a vessel which in essence forms a questioning of Pott’s faith and ability to believe in his faith. In his own words:’…the music confronts a mid-life ebbing of faith. Scientific rationalism shrinks our place in the scheme of things…while the state of the world suggests a suffering God, powerless to intervene in any human misery’.

Like all great composers, Pott turns to music to try and create some sort of response. To put this into perspective, two events that surround the history of this powerful and emotional work are the tragedy of Beslan in 2004 (after which Pott wrote the first music) and the 7 July bombings in London, which occurred the day after the first performance.

The Vasari Singners are excellent – there is a vast amount of text to be sung and although it is occasionally lost, the feeling that is conveyed is always obvious and performed with unfailing commitment. Jeremy Filsell is superb in his playing, producing a constantly exhilarating sound from the remarkable Marcussen organ. James Gilchrist is a tenor with a remarkable ability to sing with clarity and near effortlessness. In his 50th year, Francis Pott has given us a work of huge power and individuality. This is an immense performance of an immense work.

  1. Prologue (organ solo) – Francis Pott – [2.04]
  2. There where the sun first dwelt – Francis Pott – [1.09]
  3. Lord, thou hast been our refuge – Francis Pott – [2.46]
  4. Now, as though God were sighing – Francis Pott – [2.06]
  5. There where the sun first dwelt (reprise) – Francis Pott – [2.21]
  6. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day – Francis Pott – [2.06]
  7. And there went out another horse that was red – Francis Pott – [1.40]
  8. The cities that are burnt and consumed from the earth – Francis Pott – [2.08]
  9. For a nation is come up – Francis Pott – [1.57]
  10. All faces shall gather blackness – Francis Pott – [2.05]
  11. They that hate me without a cause (Tenor solo: Daniel Burges) – Francis Pott – [3.35]
  12. Divided sons, fight on – Francis Pott – [3.13]
  13. Behold a pale horse – Francis Pott – [1.32]
  14. Blessed be he that taketh their children – Francis Pott – [0.52]
  15. Dark earth, dark heavens … [Interlude (organ solo)] – Francis Pott – [3.24]
  16. Yesterday I was at work teaching Christ to lift his cross – Francis Pott – [3.29]
  17. The Lord is my shepherd – Francis Pott – [9.08]
  18. For those men night was a more bitter day – Francis Pott – [4.45]
  19. My God, why hast thou forsaken me? – Francis Pott – [4.24]
  20. O do not look – Francis Pott – [3.22]
  21. Is this He that was transfigured – Francis Pott – [6.01]
  22. There they lie huddled – Francis Pott – [2.55]
  23. Epilogue: Clear sight shall never man have – Francis Pott – [4.26]
  24. For in the other life – Francis Pott – [3.40]
  25. In one little time may heaven be won and lost – Francis Pott – [4.57]
  26. Amen – Francis Pott – [2.09]
  27. Farewell, ghostly friend – Francis Pott – [1.30]
  28. The love in him was such – Francis Pott – [2.48]
  29. Amen – Francis Pott – [2.16]

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