Arts Arts & Books

Sir James MacMillan reveals the poignant power of an obscure war poet

Sir James MacMillan (Hans Van der Woerd)

All the Hills and Vales Along is a stunning evocation of one young soldier's experience of the battlefield

It sometimes seems as though there can’t have been a British soldier in the First World War who didn’t stagger into battle with a copy of A Shropshire Lad in one pocket and a notebook of his own poetic musings in another. The conveyor belt of 1914/18 anniversaries has unearthed so many – and among them is Charles Sorley, a 20-year-old soldier-poet killed at the Battle of Loos. His body was never found; only a kitbag full of verse. And it’s become the basis for an oratorio by Sir James MacMillan which has just received its London premiere at the Barbican.

All the Hills and Vales Along isn’t a prepossessing title: it gives no idea of the directness of the texts or the imaginative sweep of music that’s effectively a catalogue of 1914/18 sound-worlds, gathering in everything from martial menace, marching bands and the banal good cheer of street songs to the melancholic pastoral of World War I composers.

So you have to hear the piece to know how powerful, poignant and evocative it is: a fine example of MacMillan at his most accessibly attractive, giving a massed choir the chance to shine (at just the right level of challenge) and unfolding with a vivid clarity of purpose.

For this premiere it had the London Symphony Orchestra (with extra brass) and Chorus, and the luxury of Ian Bostridge as a youthful-sounding soloist – the voice almost as fresh and agile as it was when I first heard him at the Barbican a quarter of a century ago. It must be monkey glands.

On a smaller scale, the same week brought more war poets in a new song-cycle by composer Louis Mander. But these Songs of Experience didn’t so much muse on war as on love; and after setting Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon they finished (oddly) with a passionate, perhaps un-regal sonnet of desire by Mary, Queen of Scots. The music had, especially in the piano part, an eloquent sophistication; and the forthright baritone of Rodney Earl Clarke was impressive.

If you’ve sung the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, you might not know that its familiar tune is actually adapted from an aria in Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith. It hasn’t been performed in Britain since the 1920s; but the other week it got a partial presentation, ready for a full performance at the Festival Hall next spring. At the piano was Will Vann, who will conduct; and singing the original aria was mezzo Kathryn Rudge.

Between them they convinced me that I need to mark the date for the complete event. It’s April 3: a big deal for all Parry fans, of whom I’m sure there are a few.