At First Light
Requiem for double chorus and 'cello soloforces: Double SATB Choir, Violoncello
published by: Peters Edition
At First Light received its recording premiere in March 2019 from the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio under its conductor, Matthew Berry, with the ‘cello part performed by the distinguished British artist Joseph Spooner [ https://josephspooner.net/ ]. The work was released on 10th July 2020 on the Naxos label [8.573976], coupled with a performance of Francis Pott’s Word, in which the organ part was played by Christian Wilson. The score and ‘cello part are available as of summer 2020 from Edition Peters.
At First Light was commissioned by Eric Bruskin, a resident of Philadelphia, USA, in memory of his mother. Eric had a longstanding enthusiasm for my work, and I was touched to be the person he approached for a task which is both a privilege and a daunting responsibility. In a sense, no music can ever measure up to the weight of love or the hope of consolation vested in it under such circumstances – but in memory I carry the deaths of both my own parents, and I was able to draw upon that. Eric’s fondness for my Cello Sonata (itself written in memoriam) led him to ask that I include a solo ‘cello part in the new work – but his attachment also to my polyphonic sacred choral writing meant that he wanted a centrepiece which would be both a showcase of that approach and the celebration of a life well lived. Therefore, the seven movements of At First Light arrange themselves as a series of slow meditations surrounding an exuberant 9-minute motet in which the lamenting cello falls temporarily silent.
Eric’s Jewish faith meant that approaching an agnostic humanist brought up within the Anglican tradition was hardly free of problems! Gradually, though, I was able to win his approval for a collated mosaic of texts. This embraces some liturgical Latin (necessary for the motet) as the shared preserve of broad western culture in general, but balances it with a secular approach to loss, celebration, remembrance and the many shades of our mourning those whom we see no longer. Eric was adamant that he did not want the title Requiem; but what has emerged is still a form of semi-secular Requiem in all but name, taking its title instead from a phrase in the poem by Thomas Blackburn set as the third movement. This seemed to suggest succinctly how the loss of one very close to us is an awakening into an unfamiliar world where everything is changed. Following the exuberant central movement, the texts by the Lebanese-born Kahlil Gibran and the US, Kentuckian poet Wendell Berry first address the departed loved one directly, then place us within an imaginary funeral cortège, where the perennial and universal in human experience become personal without subscribing explicitly to any particular faith (or lack of it). The final text of all is a translation of a Hebraic prayer, requested and provided by Eric Bruskin, which serves to mirror its Latin counterpart heard at the outset.
Throughout, the lamenting cello represents a commentary on the experience articulated in the text. It evokes and, in a sense, tries to embrace and sanctify the individual existential journeys of the bereft, as they in turn seek to make their own sense of what the short-lived Second World War poet Alun Lewis called ‘the unbearable beauty of the dead’ (movement 5).
In a modern world hostage to ever greater menace, displacement, bloodshed and anguish, I hope fervently that this music not only brings a measure of solace to the person who commissioned it, but also makes its own small contribution to bailing out the sinking ship of humanity.
© Francis Pott, 2018
Francis Pott, one of the most acclaimed British composers of sacred choral music, offers two extended 21st century scores receiving their World Premiere Recordings. At First Light—lasting around forty-two minutes—compounds texts from very differing sources, together with a part for solo cello. Pott’s description is a ‘series of meditations surrounding an exuberant motet’. So we have a large part of the Latin Mass for the Dead; words from the Bible and modern verse as diverse as those from Lebanon, Kentucky and a translation of a Hebrew prayer. It has given Pott a stylistic freedom that he uses to the full, setting the scene with the solo cello and voices that almost becomes an orchestral texture. Throughout Pott works in a modern tonality that poses few challenges to the vocal group, Commotio, who have an ongoing relationship with the contemporary repertoire, their unfailingly accurate intonation is here paramount in creating the subtle shifts of colours required in predominantly quiet music. There is then a major shift of style for Word, using words by St. John and R. S. Thomas, the 20th century poet. There is a quantity of atonality in the writing and some rather striking dynamic changes. Unused in the first work, the organ here makes its presence felt. The founder of Commotio, Matthew Berry, allows At First Light the unhurried pace it requires, while pushing forwards in Word. Joseph Spooner is the cellist and Christian Wilson the organist. The recording, made in Keble College Chapel, Oxford, has a perfect ambience with enough reverberation to add to the size and weight of Commotio, while retaining sufficient clarity to separate strands. A major and very desirable choral release.
David Denton, David’s Review Corner, July 2020 https://www.naxos.com/reviews/reviewslist.asp?catalogueid=8.573976&languageid=EN
This release is the second from Naxos devoted to Francis Pott, born 1957, a British composer whose highly personal choral writing is distinctive for its assimilation of Tudor polyphony allied to numerous reminiscences of twentieth-century figures embracing Britten to Vaughan Williams. An acute sensitivity to biblical texts and poetry is evident in this generous coupling of two major commissions which foreground an uncompromising intellectual rigour with a captivating eloquence.
At First Light (2018) for choir and cello comprises a series of six meditations framed by words from the Latin Mass for the Dead with Laudibus in Sanctis (a paraphrase of Psalm 150) forming an exuberant William Byrd-inspired centrepiece – the work’s memorial character bearing kinship with a Requiem. Weaving its way through much of this highly evocative work is Joseph Spooner’s expressive cello – an elaborate and rapt commentary on love, loss and remembrance drawn from thought-provoking texts by Wendell Berry, Thomas Blackburn, Alun Lewis and Kahlil Gibran. It was commissioned by the American Eric Bruskin who requested a commemorative work for his mother that, with added “polyphonic burnout”, would also celebrate a life well lived. Pott responds to this extra wish with a nine-minute contrapuntal marathon of dazzling virtuosity. It’s an endurance test to strain the limits of most choirs, but Oxford-based Commotio negotiate its punishing (and relentless) double-choir counterpoint with remarkable ease, unflagging energy testament to the singers’ commitment to the composer as much as to Matthew Berry’s skills as director.
Elsewhere, the writing is suitably restrained; richly chromatic and searching harmonies fashioned from serpentine vocal lines impose their own sober, yet haunting beauty. It’s a shame Naxos has failed to provide translations of the Latin texts, but their absence is no serious loss since Pott’s word-setting is so directly communicative even when the opening ‘Requiem aeternam’ expands to eight-part textures. Luminosity characterises much of the piece, climaxes offering limited relief to a broadly encompassing plangent mode of expression. Two accomplished soloists (Tim Ambrose and Heather Thomas) bring individual expression to the solace of ‘We follow the dead to their graves’, comforting reassurances supported by choir and lamenting cello. Throughout, Pott’s forty-minute-plus At First Light is served by singing of formidable accuracy and a cellist of peerless musicianship.
The slightly shorter Word (2012) is no less intellectually probing and is compiled from an extended sequence of meditations on the meaning of the Gospel viewed through a secular, postmodern lens. Its commission by the Revd Dr Nicholas Fisher was conceived as part of the Merton Choirbook project to mark the 750th-anniversary of the foundation of Merton College, Oxford. Scored for choir and organ, Word intersperses five poems by R. S. Thomas with verses from St John’s Prologue. To the poet’s “thorny demotic language” and absence of comfortable certainties Pott provides a buoyant response, juxtaposing measured, often glowing introspection with restless dancing rhythms underpinned by a clarity of utterance inclined more towards chorale-like material than elaborate polyphony. Passages for soprano soloists are gratifyingly rendered and the demanding organ role (including a climatic epilogue) is superbly realised by Christian Wilson. As an interrogation of faith and humanity, Word provides a hard-won if subdued answer to divine mysteries.
Together, these two works represent a significant addition to choral literature: magnificent performances and generously recorded sound with a comprehensive booklet note from the composer.
David Truslove, Colin’s Column, July 2020 https://www.colinscolumn.com/category/recording-review/
‘At First Light (2018) — essentially a Requiem combining biblical, liturgical and secular poetic texts — is an extraordinarily powerful, unflinching addressing of grief’s complexities, Francis Pott’s texturally and harmonically rich and varied music seducing ear, mind and heart. Joseph Spooner plays the moving solo cello part magnificently, and Berry’s choir Commotio is excellent, as it is in Word (2012), where R. S. Thomas’s poetry and St John’s Prologue are thought-provokingly conjoined, Christian Wilson deft in the role of solo organist.’
Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times online, 09 August 2020
… The last two sections of At First Light are, I think, particularly satisfying, both musically and in terms of the construction of the libretto. First comes a section entitled ‘We follow the dead to their graves’, a setting of lines by the American poet, Wendell Berry (b 1934). …The whole section is very moving but even more moving is the seamless segue into the last section, ‘God of compassion who dwells on high’. This sets (in English) words from the Hebrew Liturgy of Interment.
…At First Light is a wonderful composition. It presents a most satisfying and discerning synthesis of words and music. Francis Pott has produced a work of great eloquence and no little beauty. I find it hard to imagine it could have received a more auspicious debut on disc. …I’m delighted that these two fine and significant contemporary choral works have made it into the catalogue, especially in such first-rate performances.
John Quinn, Musicweb International, August 2020 https://musicweb-international.com/classrev/2020/Aug/Pott-Word-8573976.htm
Every now and then you hear a new work and feel that excitement, the knowledge that here is a piece that is going to become part of the landscape. Rooted in tradition but with a voice of its own, immediately appealing but refusing to reveal everything at first listen, Francis Pott’s At First Light – recorded here for the first time by the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio – is one such piece.
Described by the composer as a ‘semi-secular requiem’, At First Light follows in the footsteps of other Anglican settings, assembling an original collage-text that includes words from the Mass for the Dead, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms alongside poetry by Kahlil Gibran, Thomas Blackburn and Kentucky’s Wendell Berry. The effect is one of softening and consolation, words that bridge the gap between the dead and the living, dissolving the distance and formality of the liturgy in personal meditation and response.
A solo cello (sensitively and expressively played here by Joseph Spooner) sings a long, lyrical threnody that runs right through the work – a constant thread of hope that gradually draws the unaccompanied choir out of the muted doubt of the opening (pleas for salvation emerge hushed, uncertain, low in the voices) into the quiet affirmation and unexpected radiance of the work’s final cadence. The only time the cello falls silent is in the 10-minute motet at the centre of the work. An exhilarating, dance-filled double-choir setting of Psalm 150, it’s a primary-coloured keystone for a work painted in subtle shades – echoes of Howells but also Frank Martin and Pizzetti in its broad genealogy.
Alexandra Coghlan, Gramophone, September 2020
Pott’s music has had an increasing presence for some years now, and these two works are good examples of his style. Both have an eclectic mix of liturgical and secular texts and are expertly written for the choral forces. Commotio …approaches the music with an involved sense of phrasing, and dynamic range and flexibility.
Martin Cotton, BBC Music Magazine, September 2020 ****
Francis Pott proceeds from a basis of Renaissance English vocal polyphony, elaborating it with contemporary influences carefully chosen according to text. This release, the second by the small choir Commotio to take up his music, makes a good starting point for those interested. Pott himself has given a concise summary of his aims: “After many years exploring how far I could harness the guiding principles of 16th century imitative polyphony within a tonally and harmonically expanded modern context, more recently I have found myself mixing sacred and secular texts. With this came a more selective attitude to polyphonic counterpoint, and a need to adapt my approach in more conscious reaction to the dictates of a given poem.” Here his texts, and thus his sounds, are unusually varied. He can range from full-on tonality to sharp dissonance as needed. At First Light is a memorial piece commissioned by an American listener who requested “a polyphonic burn-out,” the virtuoso fourth movement, “Laudibus in sanctis dominum.” Pott surrounds these with meditative pieces, ranging from the Requiem mass to American writer Wendell Berry, in which a solo cello functions as a kind of cantor. …Pott has had an ongoing relationship with the small choir Commotio and its director, Matthew Berry, for some years, and the choir responds admirably to the very quiet passages required in both these works. This is strong and somewhat personal English choral music.
James Manheim, AllMusic **** https://www.allmusic.com/album/francis-pott-at-first-light-word-mw0003386701
World premiere recordings of two substantial pieces by Francis Pott. At First Light (2018) is an effective in memoriam piece, a series of meditations in which the solo cello provides a lyrical commentary on the sung texts. Word (2012) was conceived for the Merton Choirbook project marking the 750th anniversary of the founding of Merton College, Oxford. Under their founder, Matthew Berry, Commotio show themselves to be fully committed in this pair of taxing works. Cleanly balanced and with impeccable intonation, the choir can be particularly admired in quieter passages. A shout out for the fine playing of cellist Joseph Spooner and, in Word, organist Christian Wilson.
Philip Reed, Choir & Organ, November-December 2020
The music of Francis Pott has not had too much exposure in Fanfare’s pages, but a previous Naxos release by these very performers did make Carson Cooman’s Wants List in 2012. And unsurprisingly so: the excellence of the choral group Commotio is beyond doubt.
[Eric Bruskin] …commissioned [At First Light] in memory of his mother. It was actually Bruskin’s liking of Pott’s Cello Sonata that made him request a solo cello part, and what an inspired ask that was: the expressive, itself near-vocal cello of Joseph Spooner benefits the music’s reflective sense enormously.
The jubilant ‘Laudibus in Sanctis’ [movement 4] is …a veritable explosion of joy culminating in glowing Alleluias. I can give Pott no higher praise than to state his music does justice to the astonishing poem by Alun Lewis which furnishes much of the fifth movement, and which houses the unforgettable line, ‘…the unbearable beauty of the dead’. There is no doubting Francis Pott’s music speaks from the heart. A remarkable achievement.
Colin Clark, Fanfare magazine, USA *****
At First Light (2018) is what Pott has described as ‘a Requiem in all but name’. In it the choir is joined by the cellist Joseph Spooner, a lone wrestling figure, whose agonised soliloquies seem to represent the individual soul, variously the griever or the grieved, against the backdrop of Commotio’s radiant, serene singing. Unusually for Pott, known for his counterpoint, the choral singing is often (although not always) calmly homophonic in this deeply meditative composition, suggesting an eternal and unchanging order, or simply the strength and cohesion of a community united in grief.
The work sets ‘a collated mosaic of texts’ including verses of poetry from Thomas Blackburn (a line from whose poem, Daybreak, supplies the title), Wendell Berry, Kahlil Gibran, and sections of the Hebrew Bible, set here – surprisingly – in liturgical Latin. Commissioned by Eric Bruskin, in memory of his mother, the work attempts universality while acknowledging the Jewish faith of its commissioner, and strangely, elusively, seems to succeed in drawing a number of threads together. Both elegiac and full of hope, the piece moves chiastically from its opening antiphon to its centrepiece and back, coming full circle to the words Requiem aeternam at its quiet conclusion. In the central movement the cello falls silent, and the choir takes over in a gloriously celebratory setting of Psalm 150, an a cappella treat for fans familiar with Pott’s more complex, polyphonic mode.
This is a new release that brings together two commissions, both world premières, and shows us Pott at the height of his formidably accomplished powers. The cello playing is magnificent – angular, intensely expressive, deeply resonant, and dramatic – while the organ playing is nothing short of sublime. But this is above all a choral CD, and one which would grace any library of contemporary sacred music. The quality of the singing is luminous, the occasionally over-bright sound of the top line being balanced by the beautifully blended tenor and bass sections. Solo passages are sung sensitively and meditatively, with no trace of ego. This is a choir with an already solid reputation (this is their 7th CD) but nowhere does one sense the intrusion of vanity or empty show.
Pott brings a penetrating and erudite musical intelligence to bear on the great themes within the Jewish, Catholic, and secular humanist cultural traditions. Yes, it is eclectic, and yes, technically demanding. It won’t make the top of the list for those seeking ‘smooth classics for the soul’ or easy interpretations of the sacred in music. But, for those willing to put in the time, there is much food for thought in this new release, which invites the listener to full attentiveness and, in return, yields a rich and invigorating experience of – well, let’s just call it mystery.
Catherine Coldstream, Corymbus [music blog curated by Simon Brackenborough], 04 January 2021: https://corymbus.co.uk/francis-pott-at-first-light-word/
Francis Pott is one of Britain’s leading contemporary composers, and his music is highly regarded throughout much of Europe as well as in the UK. …Although [At First Light] is a choral work, it also contains a virtuosic obbligato ‘cello part, played with great intensity and brilliance by Joseph Spooner. This enhances the work’s mostly melancholic style and highlights Commotio’s exquisite and well-balanced singing. It also captures very effectively the emotions of the underlying sentiment of diverse texts. The virtuosity and musicality of the choir permeates the work, and this is particularly evident within the middle movement, a complex setting of Psalm 150 consisting of a wealth of ecstatic contrapuntal writing.
This disc is first rate in production and quality, but it should be noted that both the music and the texts are of a quality that requires the listener to devote time and space to fully appreciate their depth.
David Thorne, Cathedral Music, issue 1/21, May 2021 [reviewing the Naxos release from July 2020]