The Cloud of Unknowing
Oratorio for tenor solo, SATB/SATB chorus and organforces: SSAATTBB Choir, Tenor, Organ
published by: Composer
The score of this large work was originated in 2005, before the composer switched from Sibelius software for Acorn computers to the current Windows-compatible system. Accordingly the converted file presents a huge editing task which has yet to be undertaken. While the terms of the composer’s contract with Edition Peters suggest that the score may eventually be published, at present this remains a matter for future negotiation. Those with an interest specifically in recording or writing publicly about the work, or in making general enquiries, are invited to contact the composer’s agent, Valerie Withams: Val@choralconnections.com
The path to this work has been a long one.
Over many years I have sought to harness words to an overarching structural design without sacrificing their sovereignty within it. This has now led through several choral works of increasing scale to The Cloud of Unknowing, the furthest I can go in one particular direction, just as a parallel journey led to an immense Passion Symphony for organ solo [Christus,1986-90] and similarly suggests a phase completed.
In the extended anthem My Song is Love Unknown (2002) I had the idea of altering sequence in the hymn text by Samuel Crossman, so that conflict between Hosanna and Crucify! might serve by juxtaposition to make a point about perennial human nature, with Hosanna at first confidently affirmative – but then losing heart before the outnumbering insistence of Crucify! Later, an unusual King’s Singers commission enabled me to meditate on the Gunpowder Plot using a mosaic of texts. Such an approach persisted in The Cloud of Unknowing.
In practical terms this piece too arose from a commission, funded by the Performing Right Society, for one of ten new works marking the 25th year of the Vasari Singers’ illustrious career under the baton of their founder, Jeremy Backhouse. On a personal level, the music confronts a mid-life ebbing of faith. Scientific rationalism divests the universe of its mystery and shrinks our human place in the scheme of things (if scheme it is); while the state of the world suggests either a suffering God, powerless to intervene in human misery, or a malignly indifferent one – if any.
In response, some have sought a kind of sense in ‘the suffering God’ within his own creation, and in a Crucifixion perpetually re-enacted within the atrocities of successive ages. If such thinking has made a difference to me personally, this is thanks less to any certainty in the resurrection than to a more humanistic perception of Christ on the Cross as that mysterious figure, Everyman. The media bombard us with images of suffering too large to absorb, and in a sense it is easier to be moved to tears by the plight of a single child in the Third World or Bosnia than to be touched in the same painful way by the plight of a nation or, as it sometimes seems, an entire continent. That may be why some have railed against any artistic ‘response’ to the Holocaust, since the assumption that one can encapsulate something beyond true understanding arguably carries its own moral irresponsibility and hurt. Yet, others insist that the world remember atrocities and ‘bear witness’. I can say only that what has nurtured me on a broadly Christian path is more the blessing of a close and happy family than any tradition itself; therefore a related respect for the individual sanctity of life in others and a worldly-wise humanitarian conscience seem to offer the first and second steps towards any faith or, failing that, sense of meaning – however tentative.
If a commission lent this sharper focus, so did world events. What became The Cloud started in the middle, with Psalm 23. This was a response to the tragedy of Beslan, Northern Ossetia , in September 2004, when Chechen separatists barricaded themselves and more than 1,200 hostages into a school. Of the 344 eventual dead, 186 were children. While a compositional response can fairly be derided as futile, sometimes those of a creative bent may feel the need to bail out the sinking ship of common humanity with whatever tiny, unavailing bucket they have been given, if only because not to do so seems rather worse. After harrowing images of maternal distress seen at the time, it was natural to set the Psalm for women’s voices only. Soon I realised that I wanted this to follow the central climax of a much larger work and offer sanctuary from it. Accordingly the setting here emerged in fairly anodyne harmonic terms, since much of its eventual effect would rely upon juxtaposition and contrast.
The Cloud of Unknowing opens with a sombre organ introduction. The first choral entry evokes a kind of Eden. Lines from Psalm 90 interact with passages from Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, 1945. This poem by the late Cretan poet Odysseus Elytis is an almost tribal eulogy, its pathos derived from contrast between the happy intimacy of a soldier’s village origins and the futility of random extinction on a battlefield. A tenor solo is introduced, leading to the premonition ‘something evil will strike’.
The soloist typifies a deliberate tendency for identities to blur at particular moments throughout the work. At various points he will assume the guise of prophet, reluctant soldier, Christ figure or worldly Everyman. In essence his is the voice of human conscience, frequently drowned but still insistent amid the sound and fury of war. His vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse launches an immense process leading right to the central climax of the work.
After the onset of an agitated Allegro this text alternates with words by William Blake which uncomfortably locate the roots of evil in every human heart. The vision of Death, the last Horseman, is an enervated whisper. A rhythmic tramping arises from the depths, evoking the mobilisation of an implacably hostile force. The music suggests an inexorable army on the march by allowing syllabic stresses to ride roughshod over conventional expectation. A free approach to text highlights ‘shall’ [march every one on his ways] and ‘shall not’ [break their ranks]. Eventually, like some culinary reduction, this ‘boils down’ to the single word break, inhumanly repeated over organ trills.
In a quieter section, laments of the oppressed give ground to a single voice from within the chorus, tremulously questioning ‘who will rise up with me against the wicked?’. This elicits a casually indifferent statement of murderous intent: ‘yea, our God shall destroy them’.
The soloist – increasingly an impotent intercessor for peace – now admonishes warring humanity with words from a French poet, René Arcos, who survived the Great War: ‘the dead are all on the same side’. In response the hostile marching returns. Two sides are now in direct conflict, one inexorable, the other bent upon its annihilation. One faction (by now clearly representing the contemporary West) utters self-righteous pronouncements suggestive that any atrocity is sanctioned by certainty of God on its side: an entirely deliberate indictment of two modern governments for a grievously misguided conflict. Implacable mutual opposition is again embodied by antiphonal use of ‘shall break’ [my arms shall break even a bow of steel] and ‘shall not break’ […their ranks]. Both sides ignore the despairing soloist. As before, the process attenuates to the monosyllable‘break’. The spectre of the prophetically-envisaged final Horseman returns. His name this time precipitates uproar.
A headlong climax enlists that (marginally altered) ‘taboo’ verse from the Psalms which glories in dashing the foe’s children against the stones. An extended organ interlude finally recedes from the noise of battle into remote stillness. The soloist, reluctant participant in all that has gone before, sings words written by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen in a letter home to Osbert Sitwell from the trenches. Owen likens the individual men in his command to the suffering Christ; himself to Judas. This leads into Psalm 23.
With the second half of the work battle returns, but the perspective is now that of Elytis, akin more to the telephoto lens of modern journalism in the field than to the ageless hostilities addressed earlier. ‘Something evil will strike’ recurs as a ghostly echo, reaching sudden consummation in a single gunshot. Elytis now strikingly conjures pathos by matching the tragedy of spent life to ostensibly whimsical imagery. When the chorus re-enters, words from Christ’s final moments follow Owen’s cue, subsuming the anonymous, solitary death of the unknown soldier into the archetypally lonely, forsaken death of the Cross. This seems to be the intention of Elytis, too: ‘The love inside him was such, The whole world emptied with that very last cry’. His image of ‘one moment desert[ing] the other’ is met here with a progressively still organ solo, its note values extending as the pitches of melody and harmony gradually part company. Ensuing music sets lines by the 17th century mystic, Thomas Traherne. ‘Who art Thou?’, addressed to the crucified Lord, is answered instead by the slain soldier (in a line of Owen made musically famous by Britten in his War Requiem, and one from Arcos): ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend. The dead are all on the same side’.
The remaining music is a kind of moral epilogue. Despite providing the work’s title, the text here was the last thing to fall into place. Conceiving a textual mosaic is a matter less of lighting on things and recognising one’s wish to set them, more of knowing what one hopes someone has said and then tirelessly searching. The enigmatic mediaeval tract entitled The Cloud of Unknowing was a late, stray idea which I almost failed to follow up. Written during the last quarter of the fourteenth century in the dialect of the East Midlands, it is believed to be the work of a Carthusian monk who took pains to hide his identity. Although addressing a specific form of religious contemplation (held then to unite the Christian soul with the being of Christ), the author was intent upon linking this with an active charitable compassion for others. Certain passages strike the modern reader through their worldly note of humanitarian engagement. These provided the summing-up which my own (as yet unnamed) Cloud required.
The Epilogue starts much the same as the work’s opening, offering a semblance of symphonic recapitulation. An arioso tenor solo follows, emphasising the poignant brevity of earthly opportunity to be a force for good. Again the chorus returns to Psalm 90. Its earlier music provides a backdrop to the true heart of the soloist’s message for the modern world, leading to the exhortation ‘…lift up thine heart with a blind stirring of love; for if it begin here it shall last without end’. The chorus reiterates this text, inexorably expanding it in imitative polyphonic style. An immense climax is sustained into a prolonged Amen, which subsides until the soloist is heard intoning ‘farewell’, as if emerging against the flow of some great retreating procession. His valedictory blessing leads back to un-despoiled Eden. The chorus returns (Elytis): ‘the whole world emptied with that very last cry’. In response, the soloist’s last utterance is a desolate echo from the Cross at Calvary. A final Amen fades ever further into the distance before a prolonged and mysterious organ chord enfolds all in its own seemingly eternal cloud of unknowing.
This work stands at some distance from the conventions of Anglican worship, the forbearance for which it calls being humanist in essence before it is specifically Christian or devotional. I had wished to write something of this kind long before the Iraq war and its aftermath lent their particular focus. In the event, the music espouses that same ‘need to bear witness’ articulated by surviving members of the Jewish faith after the Holocaust, but emanating since from innumerable other conflicts. Such witness chooses here to embrace innocent victims from all faiths and ethnic strains, be they of Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other persuasion.
A postscript is in order. During July 2005 Jeremy Backhouse told me that the work’s première would take place in 2006 at St Pancras’ Church, London . Barely twenty-four hours later, a terrorist bomb detonated on a bus brought carnage to the steps of that building, plunging many into unimaginable horrors. The eventual first performance of The Cloud was attended by some who had been caught up in the tragic events of ‘07/07’. While it is mistaken to view the music as a reaction to that event, which its completion predated, such happenings offer melancholy confirmation of an enduring darkness at the heart of man, and of his capacity for acts of atrocity alongside selfless heroism. For as long as mankind continues to crucify its messengers of peace, it will fail to see the means of salvation which may always have lain in its own hands. Notwithstanding those who would decry bailing out humanity’s sinking ship through the exercise of artistic expression, the contemporary individual spared terror and suffering at first hand can neither turn away nor remain immune to words written by a surviving Polish Second War poet, Jerzy Ficowski, which resonate still as our world attempts today and tomorrow to rise above the mortal tide of its own suffering:
I did not manage to save
A single life
I did not know how to stop
A single bullet…
To help where no one called
To rescue after the event
I want to be on time
Even if I am too late… [Translated by Keith Bosley, Krystyna Wandycz]
The Cloud of Unknowing is dedicated to my wife, who cheerfully and patiently put up with much during its creation; but it also bears the inscription
In memoriam: Margaret Hassan
and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq . *
Invocation of one of Iraq’s more grievous individual losses is emblematic, and made without permission; the sentiment behind it one of personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn.
© Francis Pott, May 2007
*Margaret Hassan, née Fitzsimons (b. 18 April 1945] was the Irish-born wife of Tahseen Ali Hassan, an Iraqi who studied engineering in the UK. She moved to Iraq with him in 1972 and after 1991 became affectionately known as Madam Margaret through her aid work for the humanitarian relief organization Care International. A vocal opponent of the US invasion of Iraq, which she saw as worsening a pre-existent national crisis, Margaret Hassan was abducted on 19 October 2004 and executed on 8 November that year by persons unknown and for reasons unknown, a development which led to suspension by Care International of all its operations within Iraq. In a video released during her captivity she had pleaded for the withdrawal of British troops from the country.
This extended work was commissioned by the Vasari Singers in celebration of their 25th anniversary, with funding from the Performing Right Society. It received its world première performance on Saturday 13 May 2006 at St Pancras’ Church, London , as the final concert event in the annual London Festival of Contemporary Church Music.
The performance was given by James Gilchrist, tenor, Jeremy Filsell, organ, and the Vasari Singers under their founding conductor, Jeremy Backhouse.
The same artists recorded the work for Signum Records during February 2007 in the Chapel of Tonbridge School (noted not least for its superb modern Danish organ, a four-manual instrument by Marcussen). The double CD went on world release on 3 September 2007, to national and international acclaim. Reviews shown below refer first to the world premiere concert performance, and secondly to the CD release by Signum.
Roderic Dunnett, The Church Times:
The icing on the cake at the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music was Francis Pott’s new oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing. …When I arrived at St Pancras’ Church I could not have been more richly rewarded. …A beautifully conceived, thrilling oratorio, skilfully collated. The early stages of the work, extracted from the famous passage in revelation about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, were as chilling as Franz Schmidt’s remarkable setting of the same words (in The Book of the Seven Seals) almost 75 years ago: Pott does, indeed, evoke something of a ‘musical Armageddon’, much in the spirit of the powerful climaxes of his massive work for organ, Christus.
The impressive management of dynamic and emotional transition effected by Francis Pott, both in his design and in his increasingly skilled orchestration, picked this out as a gratifying new work.
Richard Morrison, The Times:
One sometimes writes, hyperbolically, of a performance moving one to tears. But at the end of Francis Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing, genuine tears were shed. …A heartfelt plea for reconciliation and tolerance is very much the theme of Pott’s oratorio. But the work is far from being simplistic peace propaganda. The composer draws his texts from the psalms, war poets, Blake and other visionary writers, and a mystical mediaeval tract. These are arranged in such a way that mankind’s instinctive tendency to lash out at enemies or perceived enemies is continually, and often ironically, contrasted with individual man’s capacity for heroism and self-sacrifice, as epitomised by the Crucifixion.
Often the tenor (James Gilchrist, superb) takes the part of human conscience, crying in vain against the chorus’s war-cries. But in the glorious epilogue it is the chorus that calls for a ‘blind stirring of love’, in a stupendous outburst of rich polyphony -wave upon wave, gloriously sustained.
Pott’s musical style is tonally based, richly chromatic and laced with telling dissonance. It is also thoroughly grounded in the English oratorio tradition, with reminiscences of Elgar, Walton and Tippett -though some exotic passages in the huge organ part (wonderfully delivered by Jeremy Filsell) sound closer to Messiaen. …A sincere, intelligent and admirably unsensational meditation on the darkness at the heart of man, The Cloud of Unknowing deserves a concert life beyond this moving performance.
Jill Barlow, Tempo:
The Cloud of Unknowing …evoked a spontaneous standing ovation from a discerning audience at its world première by the Vasari Singers at St Pancras’ Church on 13 May 2006. …The work’s emotive, apocalyptic vision defies analysis, so broad is its scope in terms of place, time, and cultural orientation. … As the composer describes in his programme notes, just 24 hours after Jeremy Backhouse telephoned him to say the première would be in St Pancras Church ‘a bomb detonated on a bus [Tavistock Square, 7/7/05] brought carnage to the very steps of that building’. In his very opening stanzas, the tenor [soloist] sets the scene of foreboding with the words: ‘Now as though God were sighing, a shadow lengthens … Something evil will strike’. The prescient nature of this phrase –written some months prior to 7/7 –intoned in this quiet church at the première, just around the corner from Tavistock Square and directly opposite Euston Station, took the audience almost ‘outside time’ in its impact. …Pott manages to embrace the horrors of war, but also plumb musically the depths of its aftermath. …It is unusual for a choral work of this length, with quasi-religious overtones, to receive such rapt attention throughout, and evoke such in-depth emotional response from performers and audience alike. …This prescient war-torn oratorio should enter the repertoire as an apt epic of our time.
Reviews of the CD release by Signum Records [SIGCD 105]:
Stephen Pritchard, The Observer, 29 July 2007:
The enormously gifted Vasari Singers and their visionary conductor Jeremy Backhouse have made unparalleled efforts in recent years to revitalise and replenish the modern choral repertoire. This latest example is an immensely moving oratorio for tenor, choir and organ, written in response to worldwide conflict generally. Pott chooses texts from the psalms, Blake, war poets and mystical tracts to illustrate mankind’s capacity both for cruelty and self-sacrifice, setting them to music of great power and beauty.
Andrew Stewart, Classic FM Magazine, October 2007:
In its original guise, the medieval text known as The Cloud of Unknowing served as a guide to the contemplation of Christ’s goodness. Francis Pott, in his acclaimed commission for the Vasari Singers’ silver jubilee, provides a 21st-century take on the dark soul of humanity. His Cloud conveys the almost unbearable reality of a world riven by fundamentalist ideologies, whether of the Islamist or global capitalist kind. Dedicated to ‘Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in Iraq or beyond’, Pott’s monumental, eloquent take on senseless violence and shameful hypocrisy offers a shield to the spirit against those who would destroy it. Unmissable. [***** ]
Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times, October 2007:
This work, written for the excellent Vasari Singers’ 25th anniversary, deals with big things. Dedicated to Margaret Hassan ‘and all innocent lives lost in Iraq or beyond’, it is an extraordinary expression of Pott’s battle with ebbing faith, with a poignantly questioning setting of Psalm 23, written as a response to the Beslan tragedy, at its heart. Pott’s music is unapologetically conservative in style, but the tenacity and honesty with which he engages in self-debate is deeply moving, the humanistic interpretation of the Crucifixion as a symbol of the persistent suffering of Everyman tenable for people of all faiths and none. This performance is both passionate and precise, with magnificent contributions from Gilchrist and Filsell. [****]
Malcolm Riley, Gramophone, October 2007:
The Cloud of Unknowing is painted on a large canvas… Pott combines Biblical texts (from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Psalms) with William Blake and war poetry. One of the most chilling sections culminates in a repeated chant of the line ‘The dead are all on the same side’, a translation from the French Great War poet René Arcos. …The quicker, more dramatic choral music lingers longest in the mind. Jeremy Filsell’s flawless playing draws numberless nuances from Tonbridge School ’s Marcussen instrument. James Gilchrist is a passionate and occasionally volatile soloist. Jeremy Backhouse and the mighty Vasaris give everything they can muster.
John Quinn, Musicweb International
Musicweb CD of the Month, October 2007:
It would be unduly simplistic to describe The Cloud of Unknowing as an anti-war piece. …Tellingly, it …bears the following inscription: In memoriam: Margaret Hassan and all innocent lives lost in or beyond Iraq. Of this the composer comments in his booklet note: “Invocation of one of Iraq’s more grievous individual losses is emblematic, and made without permission; the sentiment behind it one of personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn.”
There may be some who will disagree with the polemic I have just quoted. Maybe so, but most emphatically any such disagreement should not be a reason for ignoring The Cloud of Unknowing. This piece, I believe, is an important artistic statement, which carries a powerful humanitarian message that is of relevance to people of all political persuasions.
It is hard to imagine that the hugely demanding solo role could have a finer advocate than James Gilchrist. …Pott demands a huge vocal and emotional range from his soloist but Gilchrist is equal to every one of the manifold challenges… His voice is ideally suited for this music for it is essentially a light one, and so perfectly attuned to the many moments of intimacy in the score. However, Gilchrist has ample vocal power, when required, together with a touch of steel and so he’s more than capable of delivering the dramatic passages with bite.
The organ part is of orchestral dimensions and I can pay Filsell no higher compliment than to say that never once did I wish the work had been written for orchestra. The engineers have captured the sound of the organ magnificently so that the many very quiet passages register atmospherically and truthfully while the frequent thunderous episodes are stunningly reported without any hint of distortion or overload. Thanks to the combined skills of organist and engineers the many complexities of the organ part are captured with marvellous clarity.
As for the Vasari Singers, their contribution is quite superb. …Of course, that degree of choral excellence implies an extraordinary conductor in charge of the ensemble. Backhouse has done far, far more than teach his singers the notes. This is a performance that goes way beyond the printed page of the score. Indeed it’s one that, as all great performances do, takes the printed page merely as the starting point. It’s quite evident from the sweep and power of this performance that Jeremy Backhouse has got right behind the notes and into the very essence of the piece. The score is given a reading of white-hot intensity and …has the feel of a single performance caught on the wing.
Pott maintains the tension and drama for page after page, even on those occasions when the dynamic level of the music reduces. …Gilchrist sings …with riveting expressiveness. …Even when the music is subdued Pott sustains the tension. For me the music achieves particular eloquence when the soloist sings ‘And therefore lift up thy head with a blind stirring of love; For if it begin here, it shall last without end’.
I think it’s premature to make a definitive judgement of the artistic stature of The Cloud of Unknowing. The work is too new. It’s also too raw in my consciousness. Such a verdict can only be reached over time, once it has settled with the listener and once, I hope, a performance tradition has been established. However, this is a work of great importance and one that not only stands firmly in the proud tradition of English choral music but that also carries that tradition forward and enriches it. It’s an eloquent and hugely compelling work. …The singing and organ playing are absolutely superb and the engineers have captured the music in a recording that combines ambience and thrilling realism. I can’t commend Signum highly enough for having the vision and the commercial courage to issue this recording.
I listened, enthralled, to this major addition to the choral repertoire. Last year Pott was among my choices for Recordings of the Year and after hearing this marvellous, eloquent new release I’m sure history will repeat itself in 2007.
Guy Wagner, Pizzicato magazine, Luxemburg:
Ein Oratorium unserer Zeit:
Das Oratorium The Cloud of Unknowing des britischen Komponisten Francis Pott (*1957) verarbeitet verschiedene Texte und musikalische Einflüsse zu einem tief bewegenden Werk, dessen Ethos an Michael Tippetts A child of our time erinnert. Nach der Premiere Anfang des Jahres wurde in England die Aufnahme bei SIGNUM CLASSICS mit großer Spannung erwartet. Bis zur ersten Aufführung auf dem Kontinent wird die Einspielung dem Werk sicherlich viele Freunde gewinnen.
[The oratorio The Cloud of Unknowing by the British composer Francis Pott [b.1957] deploys diverse texts and musical influences in a deeply persuasive work whose ethos recalls A Child of Our Time by Michael Tippett. After the première at the beginning of the year [actually May 2006] the recording by Signum Classics was awaited with keen anticipation in the UK. Pending the first performance on the continent the recording will certainly win the work many friends.]
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion, November/ December 2007:
A Performance of Compelling Artistry
Francis Pott’s large-scale ‘Humanist Requiem’, as it may be termed, of 2005, for Tenor, Chorus and Organ, fulfilled a commission marking the Vasari Singers’ quarter-century, combining texts articulating the composer’s sincerity in conveying his ‘personal revulsion at the hollow eulogies of Western leaders mired in blood no less than those they would condemn’ relative to those on-going conflicts threatening the world in the 21st Century’s first decade.
Such sentiments resonate strongly with many people and Pott’s deeply felt, directly expressed score has considerable emotional impact. The juxtaposition of liturgical and non-liturgical texts reflects such examples as Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Britten’s War Requiem. Musically, Pott’s language will not offend either composer’s admirers, for his work has clearly been irrigated from their examples, subsumed into a fluent, immediately expressive style.
The composer could hardly wish for a better performance than this. The Vasari Singers’ quality and commitment is of the highest, with James Gilchrist an unfailingly outstanding soloist. Jeremy Filsell accompanies superbly, and much praise is due to Jeremy Backhouse, who secures a performance of compelling artistry. The recording quality is admirable. The composer provides detailed notes.
Mark Tanner, International Record Review, November 2007:
This disc seems likely to prove an apotheosis among apotheoses for Vasari, such is the prodigious care with which they tackle Pott’s passionate and apocalyptic masterpiece.
…To describe the music as ‘moving’ somehow seems as unsatisfactory as to sum up the tragedies Pott evokes as ‘shocking’: just a word. Rather, there is a meditative counterpart to this music, an experience which can really evolve only by taking it in a single hearing.
In fact, it is the calculated exploitation of that most indispensable of musical building blocks – absolute silence – that fixes these choral and solo events together so utterly convincingly. The choir is never more stirring than in ‘In one little time may heaven be won and lost’, a chilling yet strangely conciliatory entreaty.
The sound-blend in this recording is never short of compelling, even in the more sinuous strands of music to be found in the passing of the penultimate ‘Amen’ from choir to soloist and back again. …The acoustic is sublimely appropriate and the organ colours wonderfully vivid. …A tour de force for Francis Pott and Jeremy Backhouse’s Vasari Singers, and a disc of some distinction.
Andrew Palmer, Organists’ Review, November 2007:
Pairing my favourite adult choir with the excellent soloists Jeremy Filsell and James Gilchrist is an instant winner. Furthermore, to combine all three with Pott’s exciting oratorio is a must, and I wholeheartedly recommend this recording of The Cloud of Unknowing, an interesting and powerful response to the wars and atrocities of the past five years… Not having heard any of Pott’s compositions before, I was immediately won over… The drama this challenging piece demands is captured by the brilliance of the choir’s performance and Filsell copes with an immensely difficult organ part, bringing the work to life with some wonderful registrations. The text is drawn from a number of courses, …creating a powerful voice to demonstrate the conflict and instability of an uneasy world. The emotion is perceptively displayed by the superb Vasari Singers, who treat the quieter sections with complete sensitivity. There are two CDs and the second opens with the brilliant James Gilchrist setting the scene and ambience as he skilfully interweaves with the choir. The wonderful, evocative ending is beautifully executed with a hushed reverence as the choir fades away… A riveting and outstanding experience and an excellent recording. [Editor’s Choice]
Muso, September 2007:
The Cloud of Unknowing has much in common with Britten’s War Requiem – both works are lengthy, inveigh heavily against the iniquities of contemporary armed conflict, use a range of texts for the vocal settings and are unrelievedly stark in the musical representation of their bleak message. Easy listening this certainly isn’t.
The piece is, however, treated to a magnificent CD debut here by the same team that premiered it a year ago in London. The Vasari Singers commissioned the piece and Pott creates for them a hugely testing series of scenarios to articulate, ranging from a setting of Psalm 137 (with its images of infant brains dashed against the stones) to the contrasting placidity of The Lord is my Shepherd, set for women’s voices alone. Both technically and emotionally the work is dauntingly demanding, but the Vasaris respond unflinchingly.
There are two other major protagonists. One is a tenor soloist, intended by Pott as ‘an anthropomorphic presence: part Christ, part Everyman’. It’s a long part and constantly taxing but James Gilchrist delivers it with huge distinction. The other is Jeremy Filsell, whose virtuoso organ accompaniment is virtually never silent and plays a major role in what one commentator has termed this ‘meditation on the darkness at the heart of man’.
The Organ, November 2007:
This is a monumental work in two senses: firstly, it is on a large, oratorio scale; and secondly it is a memento or a challenging of a ‘mid-life ebbing of faith’ and the darker side of humanity, as well as the selfless sacrifice often made in times of war or other conflict. The composer writes poignantly and movingly about the genesis of the work. The close relationship with the Vasari singers has also clearly influenced the creative process, the result being a superb piece of modern choral writing, both challenging and accessible at the same time. The interaction between the tenor soloist, the choir and the organ is especially effective, and helps to provide a momentum through the work. James Gilchrist is excellent, as is Jeremy Filsell, the whole being superbly directed by Jeremy Backhouse, who confirms his reputation with this recording. It would be inappropriate to single out any particular part of The Cloud for the work stands as a whole. This is simply contemporary choral writing and performance of the highest order. I strongly recommend the CD and hope that we hear the work ‘in the flesh’ many times in the future.
Church Music Quarterly, March 2008:
The Cloud of Unknowing is a vessel which in essence forms a questioning of Pott’s faith and ability to believe in his faith. In his own words: ‘…the music confronts a mid-life ebbing of faith. Scientific rationalism shrinks our place in the scheme of things…while the state of the world suggests a suffering God, powerless to intervene in any human misery’.
Like all great composers, Pott turns to music to try and create some sort of response. To put this into perspective, two events that surround the history of this powerful and emotional work are the tragedy of Beslan in 2004 (after which Pott wrote the first music) and the 7 July  bombings in London.
In his 50th year, Francis Pott has given us a work of huge power and individuality. This is an immense performance of an immense work.