Music : John Surman: Proverbs and Songs Salisbury Festival

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There are 75 singers in the Salisbury Festival Chorus and each of them must have had a few friends or relations in the audience for this cathedral concert and grand premiere. When the choir filed on to the platform, there was a lot of thumbs-up signs from the substantial rump of relatives in the pews, but as the opening two pieces of the programme did not require their participation, an air of slight restiveness took over. When was dad going to have his go? At last, when they did actually rise to sing, there was an audible gasp of anticipation from the floor before the voices satisfyingly filled the building, and we could all start to relax.

Until then, the concept had seemed a little uncertain. Pairing a brilliant but occasionally difficult-sounding jazz musician with an amateur choir, and then adding a jazz quartet and the strings of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, could have been disastrous, or worse, worthy. In the end, it was wonderful but there were a few close calls.

Both the opening "Alter Ego", and the ballad "Seabird" which followed, sung by Karin Krog, struggled a little against the unfamiliarity of the audience and the recalcitrant acoustic, where the drums were hard to distinguish from the ripples of rain in the guttering and the strings sounded like they were strained through a colander. The entry of the choir on "Ovation", dedicated to Mother Teresa, was fittingly uplifting, but the insipid words and the occasionally over-sweet strings rather over-egged the pudding. As for the message: Mother Teresa is a good thing; no controversy there.

In the second half, and the premiere of John Surman's commission Proverbs and Songs, everything felt right from the start. The strings and quartet had departed, leaving only the unseen John Taylor at the cathedral's organ, Surman on baritone and soprano saxophones and bass clarinet, and the choir, who now had something to test them. Using texts adapted from the Old Testament, and a range of movements that interleaved solos and duets with bold choral ensembles, the piece built up into a compelling story of sin and redemption.

Taylor's organ-playing was particularly thrilling, mixing deep chords with delicate Messiaen-flourishes and echoes of boogie-woogie, while Surman wailed over the top in keening folk-song threnodies of great passion and strength. The final movement, "Abraham Arise", was movingly affirmative, and Surman's solid-yeoman aesthetic of archetypally English music, whatever the genre, yielded up a conclusion of mesmeric power. There was also something very English, and marvellously dotty, in hearing the choir sing lines like, "His camels, his goats, his servants, his sons, slain!", against a tootling saxophone in the majesty of Salisbury cathedral, to the dying of the light outside.

Comments