Matthew Coleridge grew up in Cheltenham, not far from where I live. I’ve not heard his Requiem before but I have been aware of it as a piece that has been workshopped for singers. Having now heard it, it strikes me as an accessible work for both singers and audiences and one that I’m sure is enjoyable and rewarding to sing.
Coleridge has written the booklet notes and he has this to say about the Requiem: “I wanted to write an intimate and particularly human response to the text, witnessed perhaps at the moment of a soul slipping gently away from earthly life”. Given this starting point, it’s no surprise that the fundamental tone of the work is lyrical and gentle, though there are a few brief moments of drama. Generally, the choral writing proceeds in long melodic lines and the harmonies are fundamentally warm. Beauty is the order of the day. There’s a prominent role for a solo cello “which can be seen as an embodiment of that soul, or comforting voice in response to our prayers”.
Coleridge sets out his stall in the Introit; the music is ethereally beautiful and the melodic lines are very attractive indeed. In the following Kyrie, the orchestral rhythms, and especially the use of a tenor drum, impart a feeling of a funeral march, notwithstanding which the vocal lines retain their melodiousness. The third movement, ‘Offertory’ is in some ways the most original in design. The choral writing has the character of Byzantine chant, which is most effective. In the middle of the movement, at ‘Hostias’, there’s a brief interlude of darker, more dramatic music which features the baritone soloist. There follows the ‘Pie Jesu’ which the composer describes as a “tender duet” for the soprano soloist and the cello; the choir supports the soprano with gentle music in the background. Karin Dahlberg is a most attractive soprano, singing very expressively.
The ’Rex tremendae’ is darkly intense and the Royal Holloway choir invest the music with considerable feeling. At the end, the plea for mercy, ‘Salva me’, is set very beautifully. The text of the Agnus Dei is a plea for mercy but that doesn’t inhibit Coleridge’s natural tendency to warm lyricism in his vocal writing. The Requiem concludes, rather unusually in my experience, with a setting of the ‘Lacrimosa’. In the composer’s words, “The cello sings plaintively, weaving through the weightless, shimmering choral textures, and evoking a desolate landscape with delicate rolls of thunder”. Near the end, there’s a short, impassioned soprano solo before the music gradually fades out of our consciousness.
Matthew Coleridge’s Requiem is an impressive achievement; the music is beautiful and sincere. It should be popular with choirs and audiences as a notable addition to the choral repertoire. This performance, which is excellent in every respect, should help its cause.
The disc is filled out with a number of other choral pieces. There’s one exception: And there was light is an instrumental piece for cello and strings. It was composed specifically for this recording; Coleridge took an earlier piece he’d drafted for solo cello and added an accompaniment for string orchestra. Maxim Calver, who offers excellent playing in the Requiem, must have been grateful to have this short, lyrical piece to play as well. He makes his instrument sing beautifully. And I saw a new Heaven was written, at the request of a choir who were going to perform the Requiem as a companion piece.; as such, it includes important parts for soprano solo and cello. In fact, those two musicians are accompanied only by organ pedals. At the very end they are joined by “a distant, cosmic choir”. Deliberately, there’s no real pulse to the music and this give it an improvisatory, otherworldly feel.
Abendlied was commissioned by a Cheltenham-based chamber choir, the Oriel Singers, who I know to be an excellent ensemble. If I read the notes correctly, the piece, which is sung in German, is one of a set of three a cappella songs; it’s a pity the two companion pieces were not included. This slow-moving piece is notable for its warm harmonies; I liked it very much.
The programme closes with a set of Evening Canticles. I presume they were composed for liturgical use; whether there was any specific occasion in mind is not mentioned in the notes. At several points in the Magnificat the choral parts are underpinned by lightly dancing figurations on the organ. A more thoughtful note is struck at passages such as ‘For he that is mighty…’ It’s essentially a lyrical setting of the text. I especially liked the big, confident music to which ‘Glory be’ is set. The soaring choral lines and full-throated organ part make the conclusion to the canticle memorable. The opening of the Nunc dimittis is sung by the tenors and basses. The female voices join them at ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles’. Hereabouts, Coleridge’s soaring, expansive vocal lines are something rather special. Then we get a very welcome reprise of the ‘Glory be’ that we heard in the Magnificat; once again, the music is exciting and very satisfying. This is a most impressive setting of the Evening Canticles.
I enjoyed this disc very much. Matthew Coleridge has a natural gift for memorably melodic vocal lines and warm harmonies. I liked what I heard, but I thought the programme would have been enhanced by the inclusion of one or two lively, sharply rhythmic pieces. Coleridge has been extremely well served by the performers. The soloists all make excellent contributions, the playing of Southern Sinfonia in the Requiem is first-rate and the Choir of Royal Holloway live up to their very high reputation with consistently good singing throughout the programme under the leadership of Rupert Gough. Engineer Adaq Khan has recorded the music very successfully.
I hope this CD will raise the profile of Matthew Coleridge’s choral music.