mon 08/08/2022

Path of Miracles, Elysian Singers, St Pancras Church review – an ambitious musical pilgrimage | reviews, news & interviews

Path of Miracles, Elysian Singers, St Pancras Church review – an ambitious musical pilgrimage

Path of Miracles, Elysian Singers, St Pancras Church review – an ambitious musical pilgrimage

Medieval travellers provide an inspiring challenge to contemporary singers

The Elysian Singers of London

Path of Miracles is a serious, hefty 65-minute choral work about the traditional Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela by – and there is a slight cognitive dissonance here – Joby Talbot, the composer of, among other things, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film.

But although it sounds forbidding as a concept it is anything but in performance, where it is engrossing, textured, emotionally engaging and dramatic. Path of Miracles is a mighty sing, and an ambitious project for any choir to take on, but the Elysian Singers tackled it with commitment and skill.

Path of Miracles was commissioned in 2005 by the professional choir Tenebrae, who have recorded it twice, as have American choir Conspirare. I have long been a fan of the piece (and Talbot’s work in general) but had never previously heard it live. It is a real challenge for an amateur group, but the Elysian Singers, under Sam Laughton, are as intrepid in their musical exploration as the Santiago pilgrims themselves. I was delighted to see the choir emerging from the last two years, not by playing it safe with old favourites, but by pushing themselves into new territory.

There are four movements, each of about 15 minutes, tracing the journey from Roncesvalles to its end at Finisterre. The music begins with the men processing onstage as they glissando from the subterranean depths, suddenly crowned with the upper voices from the back of the church singing “Herr Santiagu” on a stratospheric chord. This choreographic element is reversed at the end, as the choir processes off, singing the final phrase on a loop.

In between, the music conjures up influences of Renaissance church music, European folk music, “holy minimalism” and medieval chant. The text by Robert Dickinson is a masterful tapestry of quotation, allusion and original poetry, in as many as eight languages, and is a real gift to the composer. It offers a solid skeleton for the piece, a framework on which Talbot (pictured above) hangs his musical material. And it is the architecture of the work that is most impressive, sustaining its conceit through such a long span.

It is also the most impressive aspect of the performance: Laughton’s pacing was convincing, and the stamina of the choir through the music’s long paragraphs was remarkable. In the third movement the bright-toned sopranos danced around each other in minimalist loops, like the lights going on after the weary trudge of the second movement. There was a tightness in the insistent rhythmic passages that break up the hymn-like passages, as in the final moments, where the choir found a real warmth of sound. There were only a few moments of vocal uncertainty on some exposed entries but, for an amateur choir with presumably limited rehearsal time, the singing was admirable.

Path of Miracles has a granite certainty to it and was directed with authority by Sam Laughton, for whom this was clearly a personal mission. And the choir went with him. Fully committed to this difficult piece as they were, even if not every note was spot on, they produced an exhilarating evening of choral music that was rightly received very warmly.

@bernardlhughes

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