Holy Face – ‘perfect clarity’

Review: Philip Andrews, Sheffield Telegraph, 12 June 2019

It is a sign of the regard in which the Philharmonic Chorus is held that they are invited to contribute to the first performances of ambitious new works like Philip Wilby’s oratorio for organ, brass band and massed voices, The Holy Face.

It shares some of its Biblical text with Handel’s Messiah, so comparisons are hard to avoid. Handel’s approach is more varied, Wilby’s (in this version) brassier.

That is because the Phil shared the stage with familiar partners, the Black Dyke Band, as well as the Halifax Choral Society, by whom the piece was commissioned.

Getting the balance right was therefore important, but the choirs, under conductor Darius Battiwalla, made their generally delicate contributions with perfect clarity, and were never overpowered by instrumentalists who played their part with admirable restraint.

They and the composer, who was in the audience, rightly received warm applause.

It was another contemporary British composer, Paul Mealor (best known for the Military Wives’ Wherever You Are), who provided the afternoon’s other main work, Paradise.

This was another composition for band and choir set to a Biblical text and it, too, worked well.

The choir book-ended the piece with the sort of peaceful, ethereal sounds you would hope to find in Paradise, while the band was let loose in the central section with a less reverent outburst of jazz, which some of us would also welcome should we ever get there.

The programme began with Wilby’s Cinema, a new work for brass band and organ, with Battiwalla now on the keyboard, while the band was conducted by Nicholas Childs.

It was apparently inspired by the early days of the cinema, although that was rarely obvious, and neither is organ and brass band a particularly felicitous combination.

Philip Andrews

Link to the review on the Sheffield Telegraph website (scroll down once there)