Dyson: Quo vadis?

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Quo vadis?
PERFORMER: Cheryl Barker (soprano), Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Philip Langridge (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone); Royal Welsh College Chamber Choir, BBC NO & Chorus of Wales/Richard Hickox
Intended for the cancelled 1939 Three Choirs Festival and only heard in full ten years later, Dyson’s Quo vadis? is not a rollicking, characterful tapestry like his Canterbury Pilgrims, but a meditative-philosophical choral rhapsody. An eclectic mix of poetic texts traces human life from birth to death and asks the Big Questions in measured, euphonious tones, touched now and then by vigorous aspiration, chaste rapture or the darkness of doubt. So it’s in the vein of Parry’s ‘ethical oratorios’, like Howells’s Hymnus paradisi and Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality, with which it shares some texts. The parallels with Howells are closest in the fourth movement, which opens with a viola solo. But Dyson’s spiritual charge burns several degrees lower – though he certainly has one. One admires the easy mastery with which the forces are handled, the grandeur of the big moments, the unforced lyricism of the intimate ones. British music enthusiasts will doubtless lap it up, and it deserves to be better known. But the mysticism is, well, a bit schoolmasterly at times: Dyson has a lot to get through, and a lot of great poetry, even in 100 minutes. Some texts may be too good to set: Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ defeated Finzi, and lines from Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ are more than a match for the sonorous vocal style of Dyson’s last movement. The excellent performers sound a mite dutiful in the earlier parts of the work, but have fully entered into the qualifiedly ecstatic spirit by the second half. Calum MacDonald