Praise the Lord

Easter Oratorio | Lichfield Cathedral
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The last major concert of this year's Lichfield International Arts Festival was devoted to the world premiÿre of the Easter Oratorio, a setting by Festival Director, Paul Spicer for soloists, choir, boy's choir, orchestra, organ and congregation of Chapters 20 and 21 of the St John Gospel in a fresh translation by New Testament scholar Dr Tom Wright. The two-hour long work celebrates not only the 2000th anniversary of Christ's death and resurrection, but also the 1300th anniversary of Lichfield Cathedral and the 250th anniversary of the death of J S Bach (the Oratorio is based on the ground plan of a Bach Passion).

The last major concert of this year's Lichfield International Arts Festival was devoted to the world premiÿre of the Easter Oratorio, a setting by Festival Director, Paul Spicer for soloists, choir, boy's choir, orchestra, organ and congregation of Chapters 20 and 21 of the St John Gospel in a fresh translation by New Testament scholar Dr Tom Wright. The two-hour long work celebrates not only the 2000th anniversary of Christ's death and resurrection, but also the 1300th anniversary of Lichfield Cathedral and the 250th anniversary of the death of J S Bach (the Oratorio is based on the ground plan of a Bach Passion).

Divided into two parts: "The New Day" and "The New Calling", the text begins where the Passions end with Christ's body in the tomb and describes vividly the events leading to the resurrection. The strength of Dr Wright's colourful and lucid libretto is a major contributory factor to the work's success. The narrative is related by an Evangelist (the impressive Andrew Kennedy in the premiÿre performance) whose story is illustrated by arias for soprano, tenor and bass, chorales and hymns.

The five traditional Easter hymns, sung by the audience and adorned with well-crafted descants, equate to Bach's use of chorales while the freshly composed chorales in the Oratorio range from the intensely dramatic to the contemplative, reflecting on the Evangelist's words. The style of the music is firmly rooted in the traditions of British choral music. As well as Herbert Howells, whose biography Paul Spicer completed just before embarking on the Oratorio, there are also resonances in the score of Finzi, Holst, Walton, Britten and George Lloyd. That such a combination of styles and a large number of different sections (67 in all) coalesce into a coherent and organic whole is a tribute both to the cogency and clarity of the text and the comparable accessibility and integrity of Paul Spicer's instantly communicative score.

The Oratorio affords few opportunities for extended orchestral interludes but the large orchestra (here the splendid Britten Sinfonia) is used imaginatively. There is no easy triumphant conclusion: instead, the mystical, timeless sound of chiming bells dying away into silence.

Almost operatic in its inherent drama and memorable tunes, Paul Spicer's Easter Oratorio is a major contribution to the choral society repertoire. It makes a viable and rewarding alternative to the Bach Passions for choirs equal to realising its diversity of mood and wide expressive range.

Comments