Pie Jesu – National Chamber Choir

Pie Jesu – National Chamber Choir

A review by composer Fergus Johnston of a new CD of contemporary Irish music.

This disc is a compilation of choral works by Irish composers, and forms another link in the chain of CDs of contemporary Irish music that Chris Craker’s Black Box label has been releasing over the last few years. The National Chamber Choir under Colin Mawby gives convincing renderings of pieces by Conor O’Reilly (an NCC member), Colin Mawby himself, Gerard Victory, David Fennessy, and Kevin O’Connell.

Apart from the latter two, these pieces are for the most part written in a tonal idiom. O’Reilly’s Pie Jesu is a short and static meditation from the composers Requiem, but the programme note is misleading in that the piece doesn’t reveal the composer’s love of sixteenth-century polyphony as is suggested, because it is entirely homophonic for all of its two minutes and twelve seconds.

In fact, if I have some quibbles about this release it is on the presentation of the notes, and the fact that there are no printed texts in spite of the fact that there is lots of white space where texts could have been printed. This means that in polyphonic passages where words become overlapped in different parts, and consequently difficult to make out aurally, compositional subtleties relating particular passages of text to the music become lost. What suffers most from this omission is David Fennessey’s setting of the late Caitlin Maude’s poem of loss, Aimhreidh. Without a copy of her poems, it will be difficult to follow the complex layering that this composer has applied to this very effective and beautiful setting.

Another quibble is that there is no identification of the pianist who accompanies the choir in the late Gerard Victory’s cycle of Hardy’s poems, Songs from Lyonnesse, and in Mawby’s own setting of When David Heard, and who certainly deserves some credit, especially since the choir soloists themselves are named.

Victory’s settings are for the most part in the quasi-impressionistic style that I think of as the quintessential Victory, while Colin Mawby’s piece is a disturbed homophonic plea for compassion for an agonised and abandoned mother who in turn is abandoning her child by giving it up for adoption. The tonal quality of the choir in this performance is superbly dark. Mawby’s other contribution on this CD is the gorgeous Alleluia! Christus Resurrexit and both of the composer’s pieces on this CD show his mastery of choral texture and tonal colour.

The most interesting and challenging setting both for the choir and the listener is O’Connell’s All the live long way in which the hilarities of the bicycle-born Beckett’s Sanies are given a musical vehicle. Intonation in this difficult piece is not always exact in some of the clustered chords, but this is a superb performance in every other respect, and the CD as a whole will be a valuable addition to the list of works available by contemporary Irish composers, if Black Box can overcome their distribution problems and get them out into the market place.

Fergus Johnston’s work for strings feature on Strings a-stray (88M 1013) and his orchestral work on Music from Six Continents (VMM 3035).

First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Nov–Dec 2000), p.12

Published on 1 November 2000

Fergus Johnston is a Dublin-based composer. His CD Ard Fhearta has just been released and is available in Tower Records, the National Concert Hall shop, and the Contemporary Music Centre.

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