J ANDERSON Choral Music
Julian Anderson’s opera Thebans (2013 14), his most elaborate and ambitious musical statement to date, provides a penetrating analysis of human anxieties and aspirations in a world where gods hold sway. It’s impossible not to sense similar qualities distilled on to the smaller canvases of these choral settings of Christian texts. Anderson gives full weight to the sense of wonder that religious beliefs can inspire; placing the five-movement Bell Mass and the Four American Choruses on gospel hymn texts in the context of four shorter pieces, this programme reverberates with the richly coloured environments of stained glass, pealing bells and soaring architectural symmetry found in the great cathedrals and college chapels. Sung by an outstanding Cambridge choir (with female rather than boys’ voices) and sensitively recorded in an Oxford chapel, the result is tremendously rewarding.
Anderson’s distinctive musical way of tempering the untroubled serenity to which true believers aspire is on full display in ‘Beautiful valley of Eden’, the second of the Four American Choruses. Aptly described by Peter Quantrill in his booklet notes as ‘a celebration of difference’, this demonstrates Anderson’s skill at loosening the kind of textural and intonational fixities found in a Byrd motet or a Bach chorale without undermining all sense of coherence in the process. Anxiety and aspiration are inseparable in the modern psyche, and Anderson shows how the upbeat sentiments essential to such texts as the Nunc dimittis (which he sets in Latin rather than the usual English) can be nuanced by a music strong in enriched consonance yet open without incongruity to harmonic and contrapuntal tensions very much of our time. This music is never more arresting than when imaginatively exploiting distinctions between the community – the choir as a collective entity – and individual solo voices, or when evoking bell-like resonance to maximum dramatic effect.
It was a shrewd idea to include one of Frescobaldi’s visionary organ toccatas before the Nunc dimittis, showing that questing technical explorations not utterly remote from Anderson’s own have a long and distinguished history.