DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

KARL JENKINS: The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (2005)

A powerful anti-war message in music, poetry, text and news images

Published on November 3, 2005

KARL JENKINS: The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (2005)
KARL JENKINS: The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (2005)

Studio: Karl Jenkins Music/EMI Classics DVB 3 32346 9
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, color
Audio: DTS 5.1, DD 5.1, PCM stereo
Region-free, both NTSC & PAL
Length: 1 hour, 12:30
Rating: *****

Soloists: Fflur Wyn, sop./Leah-Marian Jones, mezzo/ Wynne Evans, tenor/
Owen Webb, baritone/ Paul Watkins, cello/ Tomos Zerri, treble voice/
Munsaf Kahn, Musezzin/ Cor Caerdydd/ Cywair/ John S. Davies Singers/
Serendipity/Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera/Adrian Levine,
leader/Karl Jenkins

1. The Armed Man, 2. Call to Prayers, 3. Kyrie, 4. Save Me From Bloody
Men, 5. Sanctus, 6. Hymn Before Action, 7. Charge!, 8. Angry Flames, 9.
Torches, 10. Agnus Dei, 11. Now the Guns Have Stopped, 12. Benedictus,
13. Better Is Peace.

Videotaped during a live performance in Cardiff, Wales in January of
last year, this is one of the most moving choral/orchestral
performances I have ever seen.  Welsh composer/performer Jenkins
began as a jazz soloist after studies at the Royal Academy of Music in
London. Later he won awards for his advertising music, including the
catchy theme for De Beers diamonds. He has now topped the classical
charts around the world for his Adieamus choral projects and various
classical works such as these. The UK’s Classic FM service presented
him with an award for “outstanding service to classical music,” and
this year he was awarded an OBE by the Queen.

Jenkins has found a way to reach the widest possible audience with
classical music without pandering to them in any way or falling into
“light music” styles. The level of communication of much of his music
is staggering, and in The Armed Man he has fashioned a work which uses
the ancient mass structure to communicate a a powerful message of world
peace. He has combined Eastern and Western texts for some of the
movements lyrics, and draws on several different world cultures
musically as well. Even the technical accessibility of the DVD has been
made global, with no regional coding and offering both TV systems used
in most of the world.

The Mass was commissioned by the UK Royal Amouries with the intention
of using it in educational work.  The hope was that through its
performances young people would be encouraged to give some thought to
the vital issues of war and peace. Since its premiere performance at
Royal Albert Hall in 2000, the mass has become the most popular choral
work for performance in oratorio-conscious Great Britain, and is one of
the most frequently requested  recordings on Classic FM.

Many masses in the 15th and 16th centuries were based on popular songs
of the period. One of the most famous was L’Homme Armé – The Armed Man
- from the court of Charles the Bold of Burgundy around 1455. 30 masses
were written on this tune, and even today upon hearing its many
variations in Jenkins’ Mass one quickly grasps the attraction of the
catchy tune. Jenkins felt the song’s message: “the armed man must be
feared,” was painfully appropriate to the modern day. He felt the form
of the Mass was also appropriate since our time-system derives from
Christianity. But the work’s theme is multicultural and worldwide -
affecting all humans. Prose and poetry from around the earth is
interspersed between the movements.

The initial part of the Mass has a strong military cast, with the beat
of drums as the choir sings the theme tune. The menacing Sanctus has a
primitive character leading to the inevitable beginning of war. Trumpet
calls and drums bring on war and its uncontrolled destruction. There is
a poem about the Hiroshima atom bomb attack written by a poet who was
there and later died of leukemia. A passage from the Indian epic The
Mahabharata illustrates that such mass destruction is not necessarily
just a 20th century thing. The next section mourns the dead,
remembering that one death is one too many. A reading concerns the loss
and sense of guilt many survivors of the First World War felt when they
returned home but their friends did not. The Benedictus tries to heal
the wounds with faith in God and mankind, and leads to the upbeat
conclusion, but with the dire threat of the returning Armed Man theme
taking us back to the 15th century.

The soloists are all superb, and notice must be given to the Muezzin
who makes the call to prayer early in the Mass. I have reviewed the CD
version of The Armed Man in our Classical section, along with a Requiem
by Jenkins. But what makes the live performance video so powerful is
both to see all the variety of performers and to see some of the war
images projected on a giant screen behind the performing forces. Many
of the film clips fill the screen during portions of the mass. I was
reminded of the war footage Ken Russell edited to accompany the Mars
movement of Holst’s The Planets on laserdisc.

This is a supremely moving and effective work – no wonder it has had so
many local performances in the British Isles.  It should be widely
seen in the U.S. as well. PBS should be carrying this video. It may
remind some of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, but it is in a more
accessible musical style and the texts have a more global implication.
Even the Catholic ritual structure of the work’s form is made
accessible to those of other faiths or none by pertinent connections to
humanity’s plight in trying to achieve peace.  The video coverage
is excellent and the hi-res DTS surround brings the viewer solidly into
the musical performance. I cannot recommend this experience more
highly. [The CD version of this work and Jenkins' Requiem are both reviewed in our Classical Section.]

- John Sunier




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