Sanctuary Ensemble Celebrate Lindisfarne Gospels Originator

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Christian Forshaw, S S Wesley, Dowland, Vaughan Williams: Christian Forshaw and The Sanctuary Ensemble, Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 1.8.2013. (RJ)

The illustrated manuscript Gospels book known as the Lindisfarne Gospels is reputed to be the work of a monk named Eadfrith who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 AD. It was taken from Durham to London after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII where it is now in the possession of the British Library. This year it has returned to Durham for three months where it is the centrepiece of an exhibition of Anglo-Saxon art treasures – finishing at the end of September. The Gospels’ return to the North East of England, albeit temporary, prompted the commissioning of a work by Christian Forshaw entitled The Hand of Eadrith which received its première at St Mary’s Church on Holy Island on July 27th.

The Hand of Eadrith was the most significant work in the Sanctuary Ensemble’s concert in the Quire of Gloucester Cathedral. This unconventional ensemble is led by the virtuoso saxophonist – and composer – Christian Forshaw and also comprises a soprano (Grace Davidson), an organist (Alexander Mason) and a percussionist (Rob Farrer). The new commission, receiving its first performance on the British mainland, is a four-movement work depicting the characters of Man, Lion, Calf & Eagle as illustrated by Saint Eadfrith within the Gospels, but I would need to hear it a second time before passing judgement on it.

The concert began promisingly enough with a Prelude by Christian Forshaw which led into Let Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, Gerard Moultrie’s translation of a 4th century Greek Cherubic Hymn for the Offertory of the Divine Liturgy of St James, popularised by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangement to the tune of ‘Picardy’. This was in an arrangement by Christian Forshaw who had arranged all the music in the programme including S S Wesley’s ‘Hereford (O Thou who camest from above) and Vaughan Williams’ ‘Down Ampney’ (Come Down, O Love Divine).

While the initial impact was favourable, after a time all the pieces seemed to fuse into one. This was mood music, which was pleasant enough but had the effect of lulling some in the audience to sleep. The fact that the Ensemble’s first CD reached number one in the Amazon and New Zealand Classical Charts within a few weeks of its release cut little ice with me. If one were seeking to categorise the Sanctuary Ensemble’s output it might come under the crossover music banner.

Apart from this the presentation was poor. The soprano, saxophonist and percussionist were tucked away under the organ loft where they were invisible to most of the audience. Why could these three not have been placed on the altar steps where they could be seen? Moreover the programme notes were scanty and clearly intended to publicise the Ensemble’s CDs rather inform the listener about the music being played. (Generally speaking the programme notes for this year’s Three Choirs’ Festival are excellent.)  Mr Forshaw did attempt to compensate for this deficiency by introducing each item, but his off-the-cuff mumblings into a microphone were incomprehensible in my part of the Quire.  How unlike the clarinettist Emma Johnson whose clear and concise introductions can be clearly heard even without recourse to a microphone!

Of the four members of the ensemble it was the organist who impressed me the most and the percussionist the least. Grace Davidson has a nice voice, but her words did not come over clearly, though this problem might have been overcome if she had been placed in a more prominent position, as suggested above.  Mr Forshaw’s saxophone playing was intense and won over many admirers from among the audience, but his arrangements started to become predictable as the concert progressed.


Roger Jones