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Intimacy and grandeur in Gloucester

THE Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester 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.


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 Gloucester . 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 arch-form composition.


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 Requiem.


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 “ Lament”.


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.

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