CHRISTOPHER STEEL

BRITISH COMPOSER (1938-1991)

REVIEWS OF CONCERTS AND RECITALS

Recital: 22nd November 2012 Stephen Farr organ music at Holy Trinity Church Headington Quarry

Review "The final pieces by Christopher Steel were delightful. Dancing Toccata had a joyous freshness about it." Julia Gasper Oxford Prospect magazine

CD English Organ Music from Hull City Hall played by Roger Fisher AMPHION PHI CD 197 at Amphion Recordings

Review "Christopher Steel’s Variations on a Theme of Guillaume de Machaut, Opus 65, has thirteen variations and is made central to the programme. Fisher takes care of its inherent sensitivities, which the organ responds to marvellously, while the natural musical phrasing is a delight to hear." Organ Magazine

Concert Passion and Resurrection according to St. Mark 21st March 2009 Tewkesbury Abbey Stephen Jackson conducted the Regency Sinfonia and the Cheltenham Bach Choir

Review "Passion and Resurrection according to St. Mark, op.61 can lay claim to being Steel’s magnum opus. Scored for mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, mixed chorus, organ and orchestra, it was begun in August 1976 and completed in November 1978. At the foot of the last page of the score he wrote ‘Deo Gratias’, a statement of the source of his inspiration. Lasting around 50 minutes, this substantial and imposing work made a very strong impression at its prèmiere at Tewkesbury Abbey on 21 March 2009 by mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, tenor Joshua Ellicott, baritone Robert Rice, the Cheltenham Bach Choir and the Regency Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Jackson. Writing in his journal in November 1977, Steel described the piece as ‘without doubt my chief and best work; perhaps the best I am capable of ’ and it was clear from this ardent first performance that the composer had devoted all his creative energies into the piece, a passionate declaration of his Christian faith.

The eclecticism of the text, which includes passages from the Bible, Holy Sonnets by John Donne and Gerald Manley Hopkins’s ‘No Worst, There is None’, was matched by Steel’s stylistic versatility. Indeed, the keynote of the work’s success was a remarkably confident and cogent integration of disparate elements. I was reminded of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, two other miracles of synthesis which forge a coherent whole from widely disparate material by sheer strength of inspiration. Both chromatic and traditional harmonies were in evidence, the result of Steel’s enduring search for a personal idiom fusing serialism and late- Romanticism that is also apparent in, for example, his Fourth Symphony of 1968. In Passion and Resurrection, Steel was particularly impressive in his unerring ability to find an apposite treatment for each text, drawing on a succession of diverse genres. These ranged from hymnody (in the evocative settings of ‘There is a green hill’ and the two verses of ‘My song is love unknown’) to the jazzy ‘Solus ad victinam’, a vivid depiction of Christ’s via crucis, redolent of Poulenc, to the cinematic sweep of the Hopkins setting. In the opening rendering of John Donne’s ‘Thou hast made me’, the unsettling absence of an obvious tonal centre was highly effective, a satisfying antithesis of the work’s very moving, steadily climactic conclusion, where the confident reassertion of D major tonality provided a genuinely emotionally uplifting experience.

The intensity of Steel’s inspiration was matched by the performers, especially Catherine Wyn-Rogers, who rose to the many challenges of the demanding mezzo-soprano part magnificently, and the Cheltenham Bach Choir, who sang as if they believed in every note. Conductor Stephen Jackson shaped a compelling and committed performance, the unflagging resourcefulness and invention of Steel’s choral writing being particularly well communicated. I hope this major contribution to the English choral tradition will receive further performances and recordings so that its stature may be fully appreciated." Paul Conway Tempo Magazine

Concert 20th November 2010 Wetherby Choral Society and Orchestra performed Sinfonia Sacra Steel's 6th Symphony

Review "from the very start it was obvious that the audience were favourably interested in both the music and the intriguing Middle-English words of the text. Christopher Steel was a modest man but a fine composer. Dying prematurely in 1991 at the age of 52, he left behind him a legacy of fine writing of which this ‘Symphony Sacra’ is a worthy example. Composed in four movements and based on prose depicting the Incarnation, the Calling of Man, the Passion and finally the Resurrection, the work has a distinctly Christmassy and wintery feel to it.

The work is announced by a brass fanfare, followed by a setting of two Christmas hymns. Both choir and orchestra showed an eagerness in their approach and a joyful confidence in both singing and playing making a fine start to the concert.

The second movement, calling the souls of human kind to come to Christ introduced the very fine Baritone voice of Adam Green, filling the church with hugely resonant tone; the choir and orchestra quietly supporting in this beautifully constructed movement. The Allegro con fuoco which ends this movement and describes Christ releasing man from Satan’s grip was sung with great power and determination.

The third movement ‘The Passion’ takes the listener into some very strange territory; a wilderness of the feeling of lost with tremolo strings and scrunchingly discordant harmony. Steel writes on a broad orchestral canvas including piano and organ within his instrumental group. The wanderings of the piano added to the strange musical landscape. Here, the choir excelled themselves in breathtakingly beautiful harmonic balance and with a quality of tone almost too difficult to describe in words. It was in this section we were introduced to splendid voice of Samantha Hay, the Soprano soloist. In this work, the composer writes the dialogue between Christ and his mother as a slow conversation, full of tenderness and with great awareness of what is to come. Miss Hay sang with supreme calmness and with an air of great pathos, her voice filling the church with warm and generously sweet tone whilst the orchestra accompanied with beautifully muted tones and suitably agonised harmony.

The last movement shares with us the joy of the Resurrection; both orchestra with wonderful playing throughout and supported by grand tones from the organ and the choir here are full of joy whilst the soloists celebrate Christ’s victory over Satan. The ‘chorale’ featured in this movement is of worthy note and was sung quietly. After a feeling of rising excitement through orchestra and soloists it was repeated in slightly modified form with a great sense of grandeur at the end, closing this fine symphonic composition in great splendour and to the obvious joy of the audience." HJ

Work Mass in Five Movements

"It is a deft and attractive occasional piece. The music lies naturally and easily for the voices." Stanley Sadie, The Times, 29/08/1968

"…its firmly disciplined ideas and its pungent, off-beat rhythms making it an excellent festival piece." Daily Telegraph, 28/08/1968

Richard Steel December 2012