Not for nothing are the choristers of King's College Choir celebrated the world over. Over two decades under its present director of music, Stephen Cleobury, King's has built up an enviable tradition of commissioning challenging, cutting-edge new choral music - not least for its legendary Christmas carol services.
Now, BBC Radio 3, with the American conductor Philip Brunelle's Minneapolis-based ensemble VocalEssence, has commissioned Francis Grier to come up with a full-scale Easter oratorio based on the story of Christ's Passion. Designed for small orchestra (including single woodwind, horn and trumpet), boys' (or girls') choir and a bevy of demanding solo roles (drawn from the chorus, a typically on-form BBC Singers, Cleobury's other choir), it's a humdinger of a new work.
Moreover, if we had been able (amid the reverential gloom of dipped lights), to read - or even hear - more of the words of the beautifully turned text by the poet Elizabeth Cook, the work might have made an even more astonishing impact.
To say "impact", however, would be to understate. Some of this is like a bolt from the blue. Overall, The Passion of Jesus of Nazareth is a work of vital attack, shivering beauty and compelling power, not to mention devotional intensity. It almost entirely avoids mawkishness and cliché, apart from a tendency to become formulaic when a couple of only slightly arresting ideas are recycled (albeit for musical- design purposes: the work's cyclic elements and shaping seemed admirable).
Grier's orchestration often shows immense flair, including some ubiquitous use of percussion and elegant, spare detail for solo brass, oboe and flute, plus several Kennedy-like violin solos (by players from the Endymion ensemble). This is the most rewarding new English oratorio I have heard since Maxwell Davies' Job and Canticum Canticorum, and Paul Spicer's Easter Oratorio.
Francis Grier's homage to Britten in this new Passion is self-evident, yet attractive. The singing (words apart - hopefully they were better on the BBC's live broadcast) was out of this world, and Cleobury's direction was masterly without being magisterial.Reuse content