Contemporary religious music can seem to exist in a different world to the rest of contemporary music, and rarely since Messiaen was in his prime has there been much evidence of it as a really progressive wing of composition. But unlike much new music, new religious music is often written with a clear sense of purpose in mind, particularly when it is intended specifically for liturgical use – and so accusing it of not being wildly bold in terms of style is sort of missing the point. This Saturday evening's concert, part of the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, was an excellent introduction to several rewarding sacred works.
Exultate Singers with David Ogden presented a programme of music that was surprisingly diverse, given that so much of it was for the rather specific instrumentation of choir and solo cello. It ranged from the tranquility of John Tavener's Svyati to the angsty angularity of Knut Nystedt's Stabat Mater, and also featured two new works by Roxanna Panufnik which fell between these two extremes. Despite the bulk of the second half being taken up by Francis Grier's difficult Sword in the Soul, it was the two Panufnik pieces which stole the show.
The headline attractions of the evening were Panufnik's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, receiving their UK première. Panufnik, a Catholic, offered her thoughts on the very Anglican musical tradition of 'Mag and Nuncs' in a pre-concert talk, and it was interesting to hear what she had to say. Having OD'd somewhat on slightly dull evening services by Stanford and the like while at university, I found the idea of looking closely at the actual text of these familiar biblical passages very much a novelty. I was (but shouldn't have been) surprised to be reminded that the text of the Magnificat – 'My soul doth magnify the Lord...' – is made up of the Virgin Mary's words after she has learnt of her pregnancy; it was because of this connection to Mary that Panufnik decided to intersperse this passage with the words of the Ave Maria so familiar to Catholics.
The result, a lightly Life of Pi-esque celebration of faith, was a compelling and joyous listen. The organ part bubbled excitedly beneath the choir, who sang their harmonically sweet, exploratory music very effectively. I was less convinced by the generically robust section obligatorily inserted at the words 'He hath shown strength with his arm', but for the most part this was a delightfully fresh take on a not-so-fresh tradition. Panufnik said before the concert that she had drawn on her own experiences of pregnancy for inspiration, and this was apparent; she certanly has an upper hand on Stanford here – and indeed Herbert Howells too – and she used it well. It would be nice to believe that this work (which sounded difficult, but not unmanageably so) will gain a place in the repertoire of practising chapel choirs around the country.
Panufnik's anthem All Shall Be Well, which ended the concert, confirmed her excellence as a choral composer, using singable but intriguing harmonies and relishing in sudden dynamic shifts. Like the Magnificat earlier, this was an interweaving of two texts: a Polish plainsong hymn, and the famous lines of Julian of Norwich which gave the work its title. Exultate's affection for this work was always clear, and they produced a beautiful sound.
The other items on the programme were slightly less satisfying: Nystedt's Stabat Mater is a rather austere composition, which I can't claim to have enjoyed hugely, though it was sung with an impressive, pure tone by Exultate, and the cello part was delivered with passion by Richard May. John Tavener's music is always hugely effective in large, resonant spaces, and this was no exception, his anthem Svyati sounding appropriately atmospheric. Somehow, however, despite its resonance, I always find Tavener's music rather hollow, though I couldn't have asked for more from this performance. The bulk of the second half was devoted to composer-psychoanalyst Francis Grier's seven-movement piece Sword in the Soul, a 'dramatic meditation for Good Friday', which didn't convince me musically – it was a tough, gritty listen but not especially rewarding. I also felt that the coordination between instrumentalists and soloists was less strong here than elsewhere, though this may have been a result of the writing.
Overall, though, this was a very impressive performance from an excellent choir, and a pleasantly varied set of works. There is life in religious composition yet – which, given the richness of its heritage, is something to celebrate.