Wings of Faith [First complete performance]
Ex Cathedra Choir
Academy of Vocal Music
Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 22 March, 2007
Venue: The Oratory, Birmingham
There could have been no more fitting commemoration of the 80th-birthday of John Joubert than this first complete outing for his oratorio “Wings of Faith”. South-African born but resident in Birmingham since 1962, and on the staff of the University for almost a quarter-century, Joubert’s contribution to the city’s musical life has been a considerable one, and this performance – in the atmospheric confines of The Oratory (home to Cardinal Newman in his later years) – was as appropriate as was this being the work performed. Originally a commission to mark the Millennium, only Part One was given in 2000: its successor was not completed until 2003 and is only now being heard in public.
In two large parts, each lasting around 53 and 57 minutes, “Wings of Faith” is the notable continuation of a tradition with its roots in the Passions of the Baroque era (notably Bach) and which continues at least up until the oratorios of Elgar. In a year that also sees the 150th-anniversary of the latter’s birth, comparison with “The Apostles” and “The Kingdom” is pertinent – for all that Joubert’s approach is entirely his own. The spoken narrative (unfolded over a sustained organ chord that often functionsas the modulatory link between sections) lends a certain detachment to proceedings, reinforced by the speaker being relayed over speakers – though David Stuart’s narration was a model of clarity and precision. Each part consists of four scenes – in which an aria or ensemble is followed by a chorus – framed by a Prologue and Epilogue that open-out the dramatic context. The text, other than extracts from the Bible and three hymns drawn from the English Hymnal, is by Joubert’s frequent collaborator Stephen Tunnicliffe, and convincingly fulfils the twin requirements of intelligibility and singability.
Part One, ‘The Word Fulfilled’, focuses on those events between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Highlights among what Joubert has termed its ‘reflective’ portions include Mary of Magdala’s aria ‘The hollow tomb echoes my heavy sighs’ (plaintively sung by Natalie Clifton-Griffith), Thomas’s aria ‘Fingersclutching the air’ (delivered with restless intensity by Nicholas Mulroy), and the deftly ambiguous trio ‘We seek, we cannot find’. Choruses include the powerful ‘The hills impose their steepness’ – a telling conclusion to the superb semi-passacaglia that closes Scene Four, whose momentum carries over into a luminous treatment of Isaac Watts’s hymn ‘Give us the Wings of Faith’ that constitutes the Epilogue.
Part Two, ‘The Transforming Spirit’, begins with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and ends with Peter’s vision of the universal church. Even more dramatic and integrated than its predecessor, its highlights include the ecstatic lyricism of Stephen’s aria ‘His open arms extended’ (another fine showing for Nicholas Mulroy), the duet for the Eunuch and Philip – Britten-like in spirit if not in sound – ‘A servant whipped and shamed’ (limpidly rendered by Matthew Venner and Greg Skidmore), Saul’swrathful aria ‘Stone them!’ (suitably rendered by Eamonn Dougan), and the calm nobility of Cornelius’s ‘Authority my watchword’ (Mulroy again). The final chorus is a chorale, ‘Liquid diapason, river flowing free’, whose accumulated energy effects the surging Epilogue ‘Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round’, sung to a melody by Orlando Gibbons and concluding the work with the greatest possible immediacy.
Among the other singers, Nicholas Perfect must be mentioned for bringing off (and at short notice) the role of Jesus with a thoughtful eloquence, while Ex Cathedra (and related group the Academy of Vocal Music) brought back memories of its fine Stravinsky concert last year with singing never less than responsive to the needs of the music. The chamber ensemble, from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, made the most of Joubert’s non-showy but resourceful and effective scoring, while Jeffrey Skidmore directed with the conviction of one who has long been an advocate of Joubert in general and “Wings of Faith” in particular. The composer was on hand to share in the enthusiastic reception of what may well prove to be a necessary addition to the canon of English choral classics.