Reviews

GMCD 7178 – Good Friday by John Caldwell

The Choir of Lincoln College Oxford, Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Benjamin Nicholas – Conductor

To the CD in our Shop


Organists’ Review – August 2000

Distinguished New Works

John Caldwell is associated by many of us with The Oxford History of English Music music editing (treasury of English Church Music, etc) and unrivalled knowledge of medieval music. He studied music at Oxford and after three years teaching (me for one) at Bristol University, returned to Oxford in 1967, where he has lectured and taught ever since.

Well! This is something different…. one might go so far as to say something ‘else’. A considerable tour de force. Yes of course it is the Passion narrative from the Gospel of St. John – sung in Latin by three singers in quast-liturgical fashion. But in places one feels that the Latin has never been such fun since the time of the goliards (apart from those Private Eye Honcrary Degree Citations in Full). Non-classicists are helped along further by the novel device of having a more-or-less simultaneous spoken translation of the Latin words being sung by Jesus, Peter, Pilate and some of the other characters. This works to great dramatic effect – far more brilliantly in performance than the mere description would suggest. The action is sung mostly in English.

Good Friday – how come nobody thought of this telling title before? – was originally composed for the chapels of three Oxford colleges: Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter. At the first performances in 1998 the first two scenes took place in Lincoln College with relatively small forces; the other two scenes in Jesus and Exeter; calling for larger resources, including organ and piano. The scenes were connected by outdoor processional music – repeated as necessary – for voices and transportable instruments. Dramatic in conception, the work incorporates narrative and meditative elements to a degree that would be unusual in opera: hence it is an opera-oratorio. With the soldiers’ striking of Jesus, and other similar dramatic moments, a video version is almost called for.

The musical style, writes the composer, is ‘influenced by precedents in the history of religious music’. And other sources – for instance in the ‘trivial, light music’ which in scene two ‘symbolises the low life of the hangers on at the place of Annas’ . But conscious adoption of earlier material occurs only in the tone of the opening prayer; in the hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt (The royal banners forward go) from the original plainsong; and in the climatic refrain in the final section. Crux fidelis (Faithful Cross) the unaltered plainsong hymn melody of which happens uncannily, or possibly cannily, to contain more than just and echo of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony.

What a good challenging project for a real’ (i.e. 2001) Millennium Passiontide presentation this could be in parish or cathedral communities.

Inevitably my review has viewed the work rather than the perfectly fine CD, and space does not permit doing justice to either. The musical setting is so many things: in addition to having what might even be epoch-making qualities, it is utterly captivating, wide ranging, by turns witty, powerful, novel AND derivative academic AND often very unacademic (‘town and gown?) – in short, a veritable compulsory purchase. It will comfortably take an honourable place, despite and because of its splendid idiosyncrasies, in the long line of passion settings (and it catches something of the flavour of any or all of them, from mediæval to modern and more). The biographical notes even hint at plans for a Good Friday II
Michael Bell


Classic FM, August 2000 Page 62

Record of the MONTH – included in 6 photos
For something off the beaten track that is utterly compelling in its thrilling combination of the liturgical and dramatic, readers should urgently seek out John Caldwell’s Good Friday (Record of the Month). The natural generic successor to Britten’s canticles, Caldwell’s musical language achieves a Berg-like intensity on occasion, but it is the haunting reminiscences of everything from Brahms, Stravinsky and Walton to Gregorian Chant flowing effortlessly in and out of the music that leave the greatest impression. This reaches levels of almost Satie-like, vaudeville parody in the passage featuring Peter’s first denial, yet the overriding impression of this extraordinary work is a majestic nobility that – stylistic disparity aside – I found hauntingly reminiscent of Honegger’s Le roi David.
Julian Hayloc

Oxford Today, Trinity Issue 2000, page 59, Book Briefings and Music Briefings

The text is mostly in Latin, the composer a specialist in medieval music. Not much hope, you jmight think, of Professor John Caldwell attracting attention with his opera-oratorio Good Friday. But the premiere of this remarkable work in 1998 was a huge success, with the audience following the performers in procession up the Turl as the action moved from Lincoln to Jesus and finally to Exeter College. It was a highly individual staging for the most dramatic of all subjects: the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ. Caldwell combines the different strands of narrative, drama and meditation with a fine ear for theatrical effect. Recitative and plainsong melodies rub shoulders with harsher, more astringent sounds as the context demands. In the trial before Caiaphas an off-stage band plays light music, reminding us that the most momentous isues of good and evil may be decided against a background of triviality.

This is a piece of real power and originality, which has already won many admirers. It has now been recorded, with the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, wind players from the RPO, and the Choir of Lincoln College, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas (Guild Music GMCD 7178, £12.99) The role of the Evangelist is beautifully sung by Benedict Linton.
Hugh Griffith


GOOD FRIDAY was reviewed on Radio 3 on Saturday April 15 2000.

BBC Radio 3 Presenter: Andrew McGregor

[All recordings are available at full price unless indicated otherwise.]


THE ORGAN

Good Friday was originally composed for Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter Colleges in Oxford and first performed in February 1998. Described as an opera/oratorio it is in many ways closer to the style of the medieval mystery plays as it is intended to move from one place to another with easily repetitive processional music linking the sections, while seeking a balance between the meditative restraint of oratorio and the bolder dramatic strokes of opera. By the time we get to Calvary the drama slows to reflect more quietly on events, often drawing on the traditions surrounding the death of Christ – the Stabat Mater  and Rex caelestis –  as well as St John’s Gospel.

The recording dates from the performances given in the round in the  Catholic Chaplaincy in Oxford in March 1999 though it is unclear how many changes had to be made for performance in a single venue. Stylistically the score ranges widely with bright fanfares, meditative choruses, arioso solos and jazz inspired sections for the populace. The tea-dance scoring for the scene with Ananias is particularly effective as is the directness of the setting on Shall I, moder.  The procession to Calvary has the heroic quality of Anglo-Saxon approaches to the Crucifixion.

In other places Caldwell’s use of parallel parts in Latin and English is striking though it tends to distance the immediacy of the dramatic impact.

Opening with very limited forces the work builds towards the end and the outburst at the death  of Christ – Pange, lingua – and the following pages are remarkably effective. Though the forces needed are limited it does need a large number of strong male voices as well as a professional instrumental ensemble. Nevertheless I hope to hear it live one day as it should we a welcome addition to the canon of Easter works capable of bridging the gap between Bach and the current spiritual void. The final choruses of Crux fidelis  and Dulce lignum are stirring, evocative and very moving but – like the Britten church parables they fade into silence leaving us to contemplate.  Not to be missed.

THE TIMES – TUESDAY APRIL 18 2000

THIS new and powerful opera-oratorio started life as peripatetic performance art, presented in the chapels of Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter Colleges at Oxford, where the composer is a music lecturer.

Narrative and meditative elements from medieval and modern Catholic Good Friday liturgies are fused as action moves from Gethsemane to Calvary. Baroque-style recitative alternates with more acerbic 12-tone writing for brass and woodwind: the Evangelist (Benedict Linton) narrates eloquently in chanted Latin.

The Choir of Lincoln College, the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, and soloists from the Royal Philharmonic link choral processionals which are raw settings of medieval. All is skilfully held together by the conductor, Benjamin Nicholas, who brings to this recording all the momentum of a live performance
Hillary Finch


New: in Classic CD May 2000

reviewed next month

Caldwell’s Multifarious Friday

Baroque meets jazz in opera-oratorio

Those who like a touch of variety in their music could do worse than turn to john Caldwell’s Good Friday, released this month by Guild Music. Not only is the work set around text in two different languages, Latin and English, its styles range from baroque to jazz. Even the genre of the work is hard to define. As it is part staged and yet with narrative elements, does that make Good Friday an opera, or an oratorio? It’s an opera-oratorio, in fact…

“Good Friday originally had two live productions,” explains Caldwell, who is also Professor of music at Oxford University. “It was a peripatetic production, moving between the three Oxford colleges of Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter – the action moved from one college chapel to the other, with processional music in between. I then cur the length of some of the processional music for a performance that took place in a single venue. That’s the version which was eventually recorded.”

Good Friday’s narrative, taken from the Gospel of St. John, is sung in Latin in semi-Iiturgical style. The accompanying dramatic action, meanwhile, is derived from a variety of other sources and incorporates arguably the work’s most intriguing aspect, a jazz band. “The jazz is 1920s cabaret style music, really,” says Caldwell. “I wanted to create the impression of something rather sleazy going on in the background. I originally had Italian baroque passion music in mind, and that runs all the way through with other styles then appearing in contrast. However, I didn’t sit down and think ‘I want to write this bit in this and that bit in that style’. The idioms came to me as being particularly appropriate to the context.”

Though a few members of the Royal Philharmonic were employed for the recording, the majority of Good Friday’s performers are from Oxford colleges. As also illustrated by the recent releases Cambridge colleges Clare, Trinity and Caius, Caldwell believes that the standard of Oxbridge undergraduate performance is nowadays particularly high: “l certainly think it’s better than ever in Oxford, particularly in one or two colleges. However, I have to say that I learnt a lot about the university’s musical potential through this project. I hadn’t previously realised there was so much talent around.


INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW – APRIL 2000

In search of a little cathartic Holy Week Angst I dare say we’ve all dipped into a set of Tenebrae responses or one of Bach’s Passion from time to time. Nothing wrong with that but it does highlight one of the dangers of recorded music: it’s all too easy to get into the habit of picking and choosing our way through large-scale works, so missing out on their cumulative power and overarching dramatic structure. John Caldwell’s Good Friday only works one way: as a dramatic, spiritual and musical whole. There can be no instantly gratifying track-hopping here. This is one telling of the passion story which is so closely wedded to its grimly unfolding narrative that you feel compelled to listen to the work in its entirety. In any case, there are few felf-contained sections which make sense on their own.

Good Firday was originally composed for the chapels of three Oxford colleges in 1998, and was performed in each chapel successively, with processional music for audience and musicians as they moved between venues. Formally, it occupies a unique place somewhere between opera, oratorio and passion. But it also has a profoundly liturgical feel with a partly Latin text closely based on the narrative of St. Jo0hn’s gospel, with further meditative elements drewn from the medieval and modern Catholic liturgy of Good Friday. No one knows the musical heritage of Holy Week better than John Caldwell, a specialist in chant and medieval music and a lecturer at the university of Oxford for over 30 years. The knowledge is put to good use. His musical style is satisfyingly electric (there’s plenty of overtones of Beethoven, Walton and Stravinsky), though there’s not the least whiff of the tutoral about it. Everything serves to tell the passion story a vividly and starkly as possible. This goes for the performers too. These young musicians – many of whom premièred the work and are newcomers to the recording studio – convey their parts with real conviction: the odd rough edge really doesn’t matter.

Above all, this is an emotionally convincing performance, tightly directed by Benjamin Nicholàs and well recorded.
Simon Heighs

WARMLY RECOMENDED


Classic FM Magazine – May 2000

Don but not forgotten

An Oxford Don who resigned when his college, Keble, put a modern electric organ in the chapel has got his own back by writing a hit Opera. John Caldwell’s 90 minute Opera Good Friday based on the St. John Passion was written in his free time after he left his job. The “Opera Oratorio”, written in the style of a medieval mystery play in which the audience follows the performers through the streets, has been composed with, Britain’s ‘church Parables’ and plays to packed houses. The modest musicologist says “The work was intended for private consumption Unquote… I never expected the sort of interest it has generated.” Good Friday is available on disc on Guild Music (GMCD 7178)


Evening Standard 23-3-00

CD CHOICE
The Keble College, Oxford replaced the old pipe organ in its chapel with a new electric instrument six years ago, the professor of music John Caldwell resigned his teaching position protest and turned his energy to composition. Good Friday, which was the result, is a dodern opera-oratorio version of the Easter passion story and has become a big hit since its premiere in Oxford during Lent 1998, despite its largely Latin text and mostly atonal score.

Its reputation has reached the US and it is to be staged in New York next Easter. Its power to move audiences is no less apparent on this new Guild Music CD which features members of the Royal Philharmonic ORCHESTRA ACCOMPANYING THE CHOIR OF Lincoln College, Oxford, conducted by former organ scholar and graduate Benjamin Nicholas. The student soloists are from the original production and possess the endearing quality of gifted committed amateurs. The recording has the essence of something wild, raw, energetic and unaffected by professional production conceits. Oberammagau comes to Oxford. The drama originally involved processions between three colleges and necessitated portable, open-air instruments. Wind and percussion dominate.

The music is mostly stark recitative with declamatory choruses and astringent harmony. The anguished falling seventh at the start is a recurrent motif. A throbbing organ introduces the third scene ‘Inside The Praetorium’ where the music is at ist most astringent and Jesus at his most desperate. The very last track opens with a magnificent crescendo before the chorus sings the medieval text Penge Lingua to the same rhythm as Beethoven’s @Ode To Joy’. The work is not all serious misery. The second scene, ‘Ciaphas’s Palace’, is comic. A parody teadance waltz accompanies the vacuous bustle and the two false witnesses are screaming eunuchs- parts which naturally go to the choir’s fruity counter-tenors
Rich Jones


The Organ Sunday February 27 2000

Good Friday was originally composed for Lincoln, Jesus and Exeter Colleges in Oxford and first performed in February 1998. Described as an opera/oratorio it is in many ways closer to the style of the medieval mystery plays as it is intended to move from one place to another with easily repetitive processional music linking the sections, while seeking a balance between the meditative restraint of oratorio and the bolder dramatic strokes of opera. By the time we get to Calvary the drama slows to reflect more quietly on events, often drawing on the traditions surrounding the death of Christ – the Stabat Mater  and Rex caelestis –  as well as St John’s Gospel.

The recording dates from the performances given in the round in the  Catholic Chaplaincy in Oxford in March 1999 though it is unclear how many changes had to be made for performance in a single venue. Stylistically the score ranges widely with bright fanfares, meditative choruses, arioso solos and jazz inspired sections for the populace. The tea-dance scoring for the scene with Ananias is particularly effective as is the directness of the setting on Shall I, moder.  The procession to Calvary has the heroic quality of Anglo-Saxon approaches to the Crucifixion.

In other places Caldwell’s use of parallel parts in Latin and English is striking though it tends to distance the immediacy of the dramatic impact.

Opening with very limited forces the work builds towards the end and the outburst at the death  of Christ – Pange, lingua – and the following pages are remarkably effective. Though the forces needed are limited it does need a large number of strong male voices as well as a professional instrumental ensemble. Nevertheless I hope to hear it live one day as it should we a welcome addition to the canon of Easter works capable of bridging the gap between Bach and the current spiritual void. The final choruses of Crux fidelis  and Dulce lignum are stirring, evocative and very moving but – like the Britten church parables they fade into silence leaving us to contemplate.  Not to be missed.


Organ row don scores hit with opera in Latin, By Jonathan Petre – Sunday Telegraph February 20 2000

AN OXFORD don who resigned when his college introduced an electric organ has taken musical purism to new heights by composing an opera in medieval Latin. Not only has it won unexpected acclaim, but it receives its American premiere at Easter.

John Caldwell a musicologist, admits to being baffled by the success of his difficult and obscure opera, which has so far played to capacity audience and is to be released on CD this week.

He resigned his fellowship at Keble, Oxford, six years ago after the college ignored his plea and replaced the pipe organ in the Victorian chapel with an electric model. He described the move as “sacrilege”.

With his academic life languishing, he used the extra time to write his first opera, largely in medieval Latin, but with some modern English and a smattering of esoteric Greek.

Called Good Friday the 90 minute work is based on the Passion according to St. John and is set to a stark, atonal score – a project which Prof. Caldwell believed would have very limited appeal.

But the “Opera-oratorio” has proved popular since its debut in Oxford two years ago and its four subsequent performance have been packed. One critic Hugh Vickers, described it as “a work of the greatest vitality which will haunt the memory”.

Comparing it with Benjamin Britten’s Church Parables he added “Considering that Caldwell’s basic lingua franca is medieval Latin, this is an amazingly dramatic Work.”

Written in the style of a medieval mystery play, it was first performed by 80 musicians and singers strolling through the city, followed by the audience. The first performance outside Oxford takes place this Easter at the Oratory church of St. Boniface, Brooklyn, New York.

The theme of the final hours of the life of Christ, from the betrayal to crucifixion, is said to provoke tears among listeners, even if the events are narrated in medieval Latin.

Philip Gault, a young Welsh baritone who has played the part of Jesus and sings on the new recording, said “It doesn’t take a genius to work out the that betrayal by one of your best friends is going to leave you pretty shattered.”

Prof. Caldwell said ” When I wrote Good Friday, it was intended for private consumption, or perhaps a small local arts festival with unheard-of singers and musicians. I never expected the sort of interest it has generated.”

Soloists on the CD, which is issued by Guild, are supported by the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia under Oliver Sandig, the wind section of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choir of Lincoln College