Peter Sculthorpe: Requiem, Lichfield Cathedral, Lichfield Festival

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The Independent Culture

As a marker for growth and productivity, the Government might look no further than the arts festivals that bloom in summer throughout the UK. No self-respecting village, town or city appears to be without one.

As a marker for growth and productivity, the Government might look no further than the arts festivals that bloom in summer throughout the UK. No self-respecting village, town or city appears to be without one.

Lichfield, at 23 years old, is a relative newcomer. The cathedral looms over the city of Boswell and Samuel Johnson, and beautiful Georgian buildings provide an ideal setting. The cathedral is a marvellous venue for the kind of music that can take (or needs) lengthy reverberation. A new work by the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe sounded particularly well in this special acoustic.

Sculthorpe, celebrating 75 years, is composer in residence at this year's festival, at which Australia is one of several themes. His Requiem is a joint commission from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Lichfield Festival. It was given first a few months ago at the Adelaide Festival, and this was its first European performance. However, as the composer has substantially revised the work - taking out some material, adding some - the Lichfield performance might be regarded as another world premiere.

Sculthorpe's Requiem could be seen as a culmination of his work. "Seeking the sacred in nature is the concern of most of my music, and for this reason I sometimes regard myself, in the broad sense, as a religious composer." But not a religious composer in any sectarian sense. Although the Requiem is dedicated to his mother and father, the impetus derives from more immediate issues: the fate of children affected by war.

Sculthorpe was writing this as the Iraq war began last year, and perhaps the most touching (and successful) moments derive from an Aboriginal lullaby whose theme permeates the eight movements. Much of the familiar text of the Latin Mass of the Dead is used, and it is interesting to note Sculthorpe's closeness to plainchant and plainchant's closeness to Aboriginal melody.

Essentially this is uncomplicated music, moving gently and steadily, without extremes of contrast, but with a massively sinister element provided by the didgeridoo. The instrument sounds like its own orchestra, with an astonishing array of barks, growls, squeals and engine noises. Huffing and puffing into this extraordinary wooden tube was 23-year-old William Barton who, as a virtuoso didgeridoo player, is intent on establishing a repertoire outside the instrument's normal ambit.

Prefacing the Sculthorpe were Handel's Zadok the Priest, Bach's Magnificat and Knut Nystedt's Immortal Bach, a deconstruction of a Bach chorale. Jeffrey Skidmore conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir and his Ex Cathedra singers.

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in November

( www.lichfieldfestival.org)

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