Alex Woolf: Requiem
“What constitutes a requiem for the 21st century?” Wolfgang Marx’s thought-provoking booklet essay with this new release tackles the question fully, around the central premise that “a broader perspective might be considered part of the modern definition of a requiem”.
Like many composers from even the 19th or 20th century, Alex Woolf’s Requiem, on the Scots-based Delphian label, casts a freer, fresher perspective on the once iron-clad shackles of the centuries-old liturgical blueprint. The most obvious divergence, as in Britten’s War Requiem (a moving and testy post-Second World War juxtaposition of Wilfred Owens’ poetry amid the standard Latin texts), lies with Woolf’s similarly-minded punctuation of the time-honoured tracts with three settings of poems by Welsh writer Gillian Clarke.
In the same way that Britten distinguishes the traditional from the untraditional through self-defining textural identities, Woolf confines the free-winging presence of tenor Nicky Spence and pianist Iain Burnside to the interwoven Clarke settings. The rest of the work is dominated by a grounded ensemble of organ (Anthony Gray), cello (Philip Higham) and Woolf’s own choir Vox Luna. Where 25-year-old Woolf differs from Britten – and this simply may be a reflection of current post-modernist trends – is that the overriding mood is one of relative ease and composure, rather than the troubled political undertones of the War Requiem.
The work opens, nonetheless, in a darkish place. A sombre, subterranean introduction for cello and organ, transformed initially by the translucent entry of the choir, is questioned further in a mercurial Kyrie that variously explodes (splashes of invigorating dissonance quasi-Kenneth Leighton) and contemplates (the cello now engaged in luxuriant lyrical display).
It’s in the first of the Clarke settings, The Fall, that Woolf’s music takes truly human flight. With words written in response to 9/11, the imagery is theatrically exciting, the heated passion of the sung line evoked movingly by Spence and pictorially underpinned by Burnside and Higham.
It is Woolf’s ability to create an engaging continuity out of disparate elements that gives this entire work its ultimate sense of completeness. Yes, there are derivative strains that occasionally diminish originality in the aforementioned organ influences and largely safe-leaning contemporary choral idiom, but there is a sincerity and self-assurance running throughout this performance, conducted by the composer, that lends lasting emotional weight to a convincing Requiem for today.