Francis Pott: At First Light, Word.

By Catherine Coldstream

Already a doyen in his field, Francis Pott (b. 1957) has been building on an early musical training in the English Choral Tradition, weaving polyphonic structures and contrapuntal edifices that go far beyond the limits of the ecclesial, for over four decades. Known as much for his epic conceptions as for the intimacy of his voice (as he articulates the intense particularity and even loneliness of the human ‘soul’) his music is difficult in the very best sense of the word. It repays repeated listening and, yes, chewing over.

Complex, many-voiced, vigorously layered, and unfailingly nuanced, Pott is a master not only of musical form but of emotional ambiguity. Sometimes dark, frequently dramatic, and often overwhelmingly powerful, in his latest CD, which was released by Naxos last July, there is also an all-encompassing luminosity to the music that is difficult to resist.

Word, written in 2012, to a commission by The Rev’d Dr Nicholas Fisher, sets verses from St John’s Prologue, interspersed with poems by RS Thomas. As the programme notes tell us, Fisher’s intention was to ‘enable contemplation of the Gospel’s significance in our postmodern cultural epoch’. Certainly, the juxtaposition of words that come laden with centuries of sacred tradition, with the exquisite shafts of Thomas’s less familiar glimpses of transcendence, triggers intimations of eternity and invites a sense of openness to the divine. The words of the Welsh priest come close to echoing those of the Evangelist, but engage no less with fractured and distracted modern humanity.

Pott, a former Anglican chorister, now a self-confessed agnostic whose music nevertheless sits firmly within the Christian tradition, is extraordinarily well-placed for bringing together these two complementary strands, which he does with formidable skill and insight. In this recording by the Oxford-based choir, Commotio, under their conductor Matthew Berry, the verses are given startling life and immediacy, in singing that is as beautifully articulated as it is pure and agile. An amateur choir singing to professional standards, Commotio has a distinctively ethereal sound, which works dramatically well (and occasionally produces fireworks) when combined, as it is here, with the virtuoso organ playing of Christian Wilson.

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.

If you like your choral singing clean and bright – and in this recording the sopranos are almost piercingly chaste – Commotio is certainly a choir I’d recommend you add to your collection. Matthew Berry, their founder conductor, has a genius for programming new and often wonderfully uplifting sacred music, each of their albums having a distinctive theme or character. This CD, encompassing two masterpieces, Word and At First Light, is all about beginnings and endings. For people of faith, of course, the two are often more or less inseparable. Dark and dawn are only ever a short space apart.

Whether you are starting out on an adventure in contemporary choral music, or well on your way to building a library, Francis Pott is definitely a composer worth taking the time to get to know. More suited to contemplative listening than to active participation (the music requires a high level of technical skill and is not written with an untrained laity in mind) this is abstract yet vivid music, that taps into something universally acknowledged, a sense of timeless presence and transcendence.

In this, the second of his CDs to have been released by Commotio (the first was In The Heart of Things, Naxos, 2012) and one of at least six CDs of sacred music (including the virtuoso Organ Works, played by Christian Wilson, Acis, in 2017) 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 is a freelance writer, editor, and interviewer, currently working towards a doctorate at Goldsmiths. She studied theology at Oxford, creative nonfiction at UEA, and has a diploma in viola performance. She drinks green tea and turmeric by day, goes for solitary, music-powered walks, and has been known to write all night, which is when she is most awake.