Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2003 and the disc is still available.
Will Todd (b. 1970)
Saint Cuthbert, Oratorio (1995, words by Ben Dunwell)
The Call; The Storm; Man Unkind; Plague and Healing; Enthronement; Lindisfarne; Vikings; The Tide; Journeying; Prayer
Patricia Rozario, Angel (soprano)
John Hudson, Cuthbert (tenor)
Graeme Danby, Man (bass)
Northern Sinfonia Chorus
Hallé Orchestra/Christopher Austin
rec. 2001, Studio 7, BBC Manchester, UK
Mawson and Wareham MWMCDSP56 
My first encounter with the music of Will Todd was represented by The Burning Road, his work based around the events of the Jarrow March. This certainly wasn’t overshadowed by its coupling: Britten’s The Company of Heaven. I am happy to report that the Durham born composer surpasses even that achievement on this wonderful musical celebration of the life of Saint Cuthbert. This is another subject of vital importance to the culture of the North-East and beyond! The disc, released by Newcastle-based Mawson and Wareham, quite logically forms part of the Northumbria Anthology.
Like Will Todd, Saint Cuthbert is someone I grew up being very much aware of. This came about via numerous visits to Northumberland. I have vivid memories of boat trips to the Farne Islands where the saint lived in a humble cell, surrounded by his beloved “cuddy ducks” (eiders) and of taking the causeway at low water to Holy Island (Lindisfarne). A more recent personal inspiration has been the writings of David Adam (Vicar of Holy Island), which spring from Northumbria’s Celtic Christian heritage. Although this disc helped to revive many happy childhood memories it did much more besides, including confirming my previous impression that Will Todd is one of our most talented working composers.
My two favourite works of this ilk are Dyson’s Canterbury Pilgrims and John Surman’s “jazz” oratorio Proverbs and Songs. This Todd piece is well on the way to joining them, while confirming the composer’s ability to draw on the British cultural heritage and breathe new life into it. Much the same can be said of Dave Heath, Peter Maxwell Davies and Howard Skempton. Howard Ferguson’s Dream of the Rood is another likely antecedent.
Saint Cuthbert begins with The Call. This describes Cuthbert’s (at the time) reluctant move from his Inner Farne sanctuary to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. A powerfully solemn, almost medieval theme leads to a dialogue between the Angel and Man with interjections from the mighty choral forces. Renowned soprano Patricia Rozario, perhaps best known for her Tavener recordings, takes the part of the Angel while the bass Graeme Danby represents Man. The Call ends with a passage that recalls both the power of Walton and the integrity of Finzi. The Storm is sung mainly by Cuthbert himself (tenor, John Hudson) and recalls “an event at the mouth of the Tyne…an insight into the cruelties and hardship of a missionary life”. Again this is backed by powerful but lyrical music. Man Unkind is more subdued, with female voices (Angel and Chorus) dominating a profound and moving meditation on the theme of forgiveness. Plague and Healing is far more dramatic and reminds me, both in theme and execution, of parts of Lambert’s Last Will and Testament (another of my choral/orchestral favourites). Hushed gloom is interspersed with frantic, percussive sections, and there are even occasional echoes in the vocal intonations, of Ferguson’s (superior and pre-Britten) Lyke Wake Dirge. The first part ends with Enthronement, a lovely account of how the young Cuthbert had seen a vision of Saint Aidan on the night the latter died. We also hear Cuthbert’s meditation on how he is now to take his place as Bishop of Lindisfarne (“God strengthen me now to stand in his place, God grant me now his sanctity and grace”).
Part two begins with Lindisfarne itself, which is a choral tour de force. It describes Cuthbert’s death and then return for burial on Inner Farne. It is perhaps the most beautiful and heartfelt section of the whole work even if there is a certain harshness to the beauty. Vikings, which follows, begins with the familiar Agnus Dei (“O Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world”). This is relatively beatific employing chorus and strings but it is a short-lived peace. We are soon unsettled by the tumultuous approach and arrival of the eponymous anti-heroes in their “ships from the north”. You might even be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Carl Orff at times here. The Latin text – A furore Nordmannorum libera nos Domine – might have something to do with it! The intended effect of panic and chaos is clearly achieved. The Tide is sung entirely by the Angel alone and is a poetic summary of the saint’s life. This emphasises the essential contribution Todd’s regular librettist, Ben Dunwell, makes to this project by employing an accessible but lyrical and highly literate style. Journeying describes the eventual flight of the Lindisfarne monks in the face of the Viking invaders and their century long wanderings with Cuthbert’s shrine. It understandably contains some grave sonorities and is often reminiscent of plainchant. Soon however, it segues into the closing Prayer in which Cuthbert reappears “in dreams to one of the monks” after his death at Lindisfarne as the monks pass Durham to name it is as their true home. This is a wonderful and positive finale and one of the parts of the work that made me think of Dyson who is a true master of the British choral tradition. The incorporation of the folk dances is superb and entirely appropriate. The closing “Hosanna” is one of the most uplifting moments in music.
This is excellent. If you like, say, Gerontius or Belshazzar, and are considering a new version of either then why not buy this instead … or at least as well! I suppose that personal interest will depend on how relevant you find the subject matter but to anyone who cares about Britain’s Celtic cultural heritage this is a major new addition. Totally impressive music, performance, recording, packaging, everything!