Humphry Davy: The Age of Aspiration review – Fitkin’s intricate reflection on the costs of progress

The Truro-based Three Spires Singers – founded 40 years ago this year by the late conductor Richard Hickox – marked their anniversary with a substantial commission from the Cornish composer Graham Fitkin. It was premiered in Truro Cathedral by the singers and their orchestra, together with the Cornwall Girls’ and Boys’ Choirs, and soloists counter-tenor Rory McCleery and narrator Samuel West, conducted by Christopher Gray.

Fitkin was asked for a Cornwall-centred work, and he settled on the Penzance-born chemist Humphry Davy as its subject; the composer himself was a pupil at Humphry Davy grammar school in Penzance. He sees the “relationship between science, culture and political movements as constantly fluid and interdependent”, and his text for Humphry Davy – The Age of Aspiration combines extracts from Davy’s notebooks detailing his experiments and discoveries with passages providing a wider context for the period around the turn of the 19th century when the scientist worked, when the industrial revolution was gathering momentum and the horrors of the slave trade were being revealed.

Davy’s observations, many of them dealing with his work on gases and breathing, are mostly given to the counter-tenor, while the narrator supplies the historical detail, including an extract from William Wilberforce’s 1789 Commons speech on the abolition of slavery; the chorus provides a gently shifting, dappled background to it all, fastening on individual words and phrases, as well as the sounds of breathing. It all builds slowly, with the orchestra mostly in a supporting role, and just occasional outbursts providing a reminder that all the scientific and industrial progress came at a huge social cost; the ending is quietly beautiful but at the same time profoundly ambiguous.

The texts are elaborately interwoven, and the performances from the choirs and soloists did a remarkable job in making so many of them audible in a cathedral acoustic that in the first half of the concert had largely reduced the text of Poulenc’s Gloria to incoherence, and played havoc with the balance between the soloist and orchestra in Cordelia Williams’ brisk, no-nonsense account of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto.