THE Three Choirs Festival at
this year was a welcome and a farewell.
It was dedicated to the memory
of Dr John Sanders, who died last December: a former Director of Music at
Gloucester Cathedral, and for four decades an outstanding figure among church
musicians. Part of his Urbs Beata, sung as a tribute by the
countertenor James Bowman, was one of many of his works, among them a
magnificent Festival Te Deum, heard throughout the week.
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It was a triumph for Dr
Sanders’s successor, Andrew Nethsingha. Having advanced the standards of the
capable Three Spires Singers in
Truro, he has now brought a
new generation of Cambridge-inspired professionalism to the artistic direction
of the festival.
Andrew Nethsingha (the son of
Lucien Nethsingha, organist of
Exeter Cathedral for a quarter
of a century) has already raised the standards of the men and boys’ choir at
. Sanders’s immediate successor, David Briggs,
was also present to draw astonishing, unpredictable timbres expertly from the
decorative cathedral organ. He overcame technical hitches to furnish an almost
superhuman late-night recital, accompanying, most entertainingly, the silent
film The Phantom of the Opera.
The festival commission was an intriguing
set of variations on Vaughan Williams’s Down Ampney (the tune of the
hymn “Come down, O Love Divine”) by five different contemporary composers.
John McCabe, just turned 70 and this
year’s featured composer, led off with an introduction and first variation.
Robert Saxton and David Matthews furnished buoyant scherzi for this
James Francis Brown wrote a most
affecting central slow movement.
Judith Bingham provided a pizzicato, minimalist-related finale, which
sat a little incongruously with the rest. With a little adjustment, these
variations (published by Maecenas Music) might earn a foothold in
the repertoire; but the unbalance
needs addressing, and a peroration restoring Vaughan Williams’s lovely
disguised tune would have been welcome.
Martin Brabbins, making his first
appearance on the Three Choirs podium, also conducted a characterful reading of
Elgar’s nostalgic, autobiographical cantata The Music Makers, with the
soloist Catrin Wyn-Davies.
Vaughan Williams himself was featured:
both his Double Mass in G minor, and the revived early version of his
London Symphony, slightly hampered by an underpruned finale that had
audible longueurs. This was conducted by Richard Hickox.
It was Delius’s Violin Concerto that made
an impact, beautifully advocated by the soloist Tasmin Little — a Three Choirs
regular, like the clarinettist Emma Johnson in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto
Less familiar Delius was on offer, too: a
set of newly orchestrated Norwegian Songs — not, alas, in Norwegian,
but in German, the language Delius chose first to set them in. Given less than
lucid words from the soloist, Alwyn Mellor, some of the pleasure of these
spring-into-autumn Straussian songs got lost. Contrast the magnificent baritone
Neal Davies, whose every word emerged crystal-clear against the 220-strong
chorus in Nethsingha’s fine, if nervously launched, performance of the Brahms
THIS YEAR’s Three Choirs offered
countless events of a more intimate character. A substantial run of organ
recitals, some pre-evensong, included local flavouring in the programming of
music by Brewer, Howells and Sanders, and an appealing Organ Rhapsody
by the impressive Worcester-based composer Ian Venables.
Honours go to the hard-working
sub-organists Robert Houssart and Daniel Phillips. Olivier Latry, from
Notre-Dame, was among several outstanding visitors.
Several fine early-music recitals
included Carolyn Sampson’s singing of Purcell’s profoundly moving “ The Blessed
Virgin’s Expostulation”; and exquisite Byrd, Lawes, and Gibbons from the
countertenor Robin Blaze with the group Fretwork.
The pervasive “English” strand was
launched by the opening festival service, including Sanders’s “ My Beloved
Spake”, and by the Nash Ensemble’s deliciously engaging playing of chamber
music by Bliss, Berkeley, Howells, and Vaughan Williams.
It was furthered by Anthony Boden’s
uplifting lec-ture on Ivor Gurney, and a recital by the undoubted favourite of
the festival, the baritone Roderick Williams. His programme included two songs
by Venables, Sanders’s “The Beacon”, and his own striking composition
In Tewkesbury Abbey, the Gloucestershire
Symphony Orchestra’s concert, conducted by Mark Finch, included Butterworth’s
A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody and McCabe’s history-imbued
The Golden Valley.
Emma Denton gave a beautifully
thought-through centenary performance of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto. To
encounter those solo sounds ringing round the Abbey near the start of the
festival was a truly thrilling experience.
But it was the main choral concerts in
Gloucester Cathedral which, as always, brought special satisfaction. Honouring
another Czech anniversary, Adrian Lucas conducted a vital reading of Janácek’s
forceful Glagolitic Mass.
Bath Camerata prefaced Janácek’s “ Our
Father” (“Otcenas”) with “ What wouldst thou with that body bare?”,
part of Edward Dudley Hughes’s York Mystery Plays cantata for Wells Cathedral;
and McCabe’s J. C. Mangan motet “Solomon! Where is thy throne?”.
This was typical of some interesting
programming, which led to the interspersing of Couperin’s revolutionary
Messe pour les Paroisses, published when he was just 21, with
Palestrina’s sumptuous Missa Papae Marcelli in the cathedral choirs’
concert; and a lovely late-night performance of Couperin’s melting
Leçons de Ténèbres by the sopranos Elin Thomas and Carys Lane, members
of the group Picander.
THE HIGH POINT? Although I missed the
concluding Beethoven Ninth Symphony, in which Nethsingha concluded with a work
that John Sanders had made especially his own, the other palme d’or
surely had to be shared by Geraint Bowen, for a wonderfully controlled
conducting of Haydn’s The Creation, in which Carolyn Sampson was the
most scintillating of the three soloists; and by Nethsingha, for his conducting
of the hard-working Festival Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra in a most
memorable performance of Elgar’s The Kingdom. This owed much, too, to
the magnificent, varied delivery of the part of St Peter by Roderick Williams.