Jenkins: Miserere (CD Review - Gramophone, 2019)

Karl Jenkins has dedicated his new choral work to those in the Middle East who have suffered in the recent turbulent history of their lands. The texts are drawn from biblical times to ‘Eli Jenkins’ Prayer’ from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and beyond. This is music of consolation, set in a popular idiom, that is surprisingly upbeat in tone given its dedication.

The sounds of the casbah fill the air in the opening movement as the singer Belinda Sykes calls for mercy in ancient tongues, accompanied by instruments particular to the region. The blend of the old and the new is ingeniously woven together in many instances, notably in the chugging rhythm of the psalms ‘Lavabis me’ and ‘Praise, Joy & Gladness’, with its syncopated rat-a-tat-tat plosives on the word ‘praise’. The fiery ‘Rahma’, to be sung ‘in a tribal way’, is another rhythmically driven piece, emphasising the word ‘mercy’ in five different tongues.

The a cappella movements are special, their delivery by Polyphony exemplary. ‘Ubi caritas’ never fails to bring out the best in a composer; here the music rocks gently back and forth between time signatures. ‘Rockingham’ (‘When I survey’) and ‘Locus iste’ blend harmonies beloved of the close harmony school and ‘Eli Jenkins’ Prayer’ concludes with a magical Epilogue, moving from A flat to A, scored for string quartet. Iestyn Davies adds his honey-toned countertenor to the lovely ‘Panis angelicus’ and, like the cellist Abel Selaocoe, brings to Miserere a heart-warming presence. Stephen Layton, the conductor, has relished the experience too, and is quoted as saying that he has found himself singing tunes from it over and over again.

The recording has been mixed with evident loving care by Andrew Walter at Abbey Road.

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