James McCarthy: Codebreaker; Will Todd: Ode to a Nightingale

Reviewed on Mon 13 Nov, 2017

The principle subject is Alan Turing’s love for the tragically ill-fated Christopher Morcom and the sense of moral outrage we feel at Turing’s cruel punishment for that ‘illegal’ love.

Codebreaker is an exceptional achievement on numerous counts. The very opening vies in its visceral impact with the opening of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (an influence?), while the chosen texts – principally those by the early-20th century American poet Sara Teasdale – are both apt and sensitively set. The subject is Alan Turing, codebreaker extrordinaire, whose work at Bletchley Park played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements. But that’s hardly of the essence here, where the principle subject is Turing’s love for the tragically ill-fated Christopher Morcom and the sense of moral outrage we feel at Turing’s cruel punishment for that ‘illegal’ love. McCarthy’s icy setting of the words ‘chemical castration’ in ‘Gordon Brown’s Apology’ is more than enough to turn the blood. Still, the chill factor is only part of the work’s impact. What really hits home is its warmth, compassion and emotional ardour. Try ‘I shall meet him again’ (track 7) or ‘De Profundis’ (track 10). Also featured, the original radio recording of Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war and music that in its driving intensity recalls John Adams at his best. Not that I’m forgetting Will Todd’s engaging Choral Symphony No. 4, setting Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. This sizeable, texturally rich and beautifully orchestrated essay is undoubtedly a suitable companion piece for McCarthy’s work, but as of this moment Codebreaker is ahead of all else in my musical memory bank, and I thank James McCarthy, the excellent performers and Signum Classics for allowing me access to it.
–Rob Cowan