The six-member chamber ensemble Dunedin Consort commissioned six Scottish composers to collaborate on settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. Each of the six sections of The People's Mass: Plainchant for the Feast of All Saints Day consists of three elements: a traditional chant melody for the Proper, followed by an unaccompanied six-part Latin setting of the Mass movement and a solo setting in English of a thematically related poem, accompanied by harp. The plan works well; the austerity of the monophonic chant, the richness of the polyphony, and the simplicity of the harp-accompanied songs create an experience that is musically varied while being unified by the structure of the Mass. The program notes claim that this is the first time a number of composers have been invited to contribute individual movements to a composite Mass, when that tradition actually has a long history. In fact, before Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame, written in the 1360s, virtually all Mass settings were compiled from the works of multiple composers. Composite Masses have continued to have a strong tradition; the best known is the 1869 Messa per Rossini, to which Verdi invited 12 other Italian composers to contribute movements.
The work's title, The People's Mass, is somewhat misleading. The polyphonic settings are written at a level of difficulty that only choirs experienced in the new music would be able to manage, so they have limited liturgical utility for the average church. Originally, the Dunedin Consort toured various churches, singing the Mass movements and solos, and having the local youth choir participate by singing the chant. In those settings, it was indeed a People's Mass, but that experience would be difficult to reproduce elsewhere.
Part of the fascination of a composite Mass is that the listener has no inking of what is coming next, based on what has already been heard, and this Mass doesn't disappoint in the diversity and uniqueness of each choral movement. The solos tend to be more idiomatically homogenous -- most have a simple, folk-like character -- but they vary widely in quality, some hampered by awkward text setting and melodic randomness, and some exquisitely crafted. Several composers' contributions stand out as particularly effective. John Gormley's solo, In Praise of Saints, is idiomatically written for harp, and his melodic gracefulness recalls Vaughan Williams. His exuberant Sanctus swirls close to the orbit of Steve Reich's Tehillim. Rebecca Rowe's recitative-like Prayer is both simple and passionate, and the soaring lines of her Agnus Dei emerge from a cloud of richly saturated harmonies. Anthea Haddow's solo, La Muerta, based on a translation of a Neruda poem, employs some eccentric text setting, but is propelled by a memorably lyrical and shapely vocal line with piquant harmonic accompaniment. Her wordless Epilogue, an elegiac contrapuntal vocalise, brings the Mass to a serene close. Among the soloists, soprano Susan Hamilton and baritone Matthew Brook are notable for their pure, solid tone and for the passion of their performances. The recorded sound is a little too present, and in their upper register, the women sometime have a shrillness that's a function of the recording rather than of the quality of their voices.