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Tuning God’s praise in works from Bach to Berlioz

10 August 2012

Roderic Dunnett gives his concluding report on the Three Choirs


"Hero": Geraint Bowen on the rostrum receives applause at the last night of the Three Choirs Festival

"Hero": Geraint Bowen on the rostrum receives applause at the last night of the Three Choirs Festival

ONE of the high points of the annual Three Choirs Festival (Arts, 3 August) - and Hereford this year was no exception - is the concert given by the Three Cathedral Choirs: a contrast to the large main chorus, but also almost invariably a sortie into Baroque or Classical repertoire that calls for delicate expertise and stylish, polished delivery.

It was this prodigiously gifted and thoughtful triple choir, and particularly the boys' singing of the top line, superbly rehearsed and always intelligently phrased, that rendered Geraint Bowen's interpretation of Bach's St John Passion such a triumphant success. Armed with a team of particularly fine soloists, he elicited from the choir a performance that hit all the right nerves, tightly structured, full of drama and intensity, rich in nuance, intensely moving, and, at its best, both profound and electrifying.

The tenor James Oxley, heard to marvellous effect earlier in the week in Haydn's Creation and (in a Sunday-morning liturgical context) Nelson Mass, took over as Evangelist at short notice. His pliancy, enticing characterisation, and brilliant range of moods alone guaranteed a performance of note. Alex Ashworth was a particularly noble Christus; Iestyn Davies was first tender and then forthright in the later alto arias (especially heart-rending in the anguished "Es ist vollbracht", "It is finished"); and the other solos - above all, from the baritone Matthew Brook, tender and touching, were sensitive and exquisitely shaped. One could ask no more, but there was more: the boys' - and not just the leading boys' - attentiveness and, especially, their splendid understanding and enunciation of German made this a vivid experience. One need not have asked for a better, shrewder handling of Bach's masterpiece.

There were, in a sense, two finales to a packed week. In recent years, the Three Choirs has rightly placed an emphasis on community involvement - and with some rather remarkable results. Right at the end of the week, a collective choir drawn from ten enthusiastic ensembles across the county, plus a splendid (and very young) collection of children from local primary schools, served up a programme, "The Gathering Wave". Some 16 items, some extended, and couched in six or more languages (none of which seemed to phase this plucky chorus, whose enunciation - not least the children's - was dazzlingly good), delighted. The choir had expression and flair, and a command of rhythm and fine tuning. This was a tight, attentive ensemble, whose precision seemed all the more impressive given their different provenances.

Inevitably, the greatest pleasure came from a series of South African songs, led by a characterful soloist Njabulo Madlala, including the wonderful "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa"); but there was much else, of which the most important was a perky travelogue (a Three Choirs commission) from Bernard Hughes, which, with its helter-skelter world tour, inspired by Hereford's medieval Mappa Mundi, picked up the theme of Travel and the Sea (as did the concert's title), which was central to this year's festival. The icing on the cake was the gracious and entertainingly self-mocking compèring by the Dean of Hereford, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor.

The conclusion of the main festival was positively explosive. Bowen had begun the jamboree with a beautifully secure and fluent reading of Haydn's Creation, which set a high benchmark for the whole week (the soprano Elizabeth Cragg made a special impact with her pure and unadorned tone as the angel Gabriel and later Eve - "Ye purling fountains, tune His praise, and wave your tops, ye pines!").

He now essayed something at the opposite end of the scale. The Philharmonia was ready to let its hair down, and Bowen programmed a spectacular performance of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture (both an anniversary in itself and a nod to the 2012 Olympics), which was all the better for being carefully graded, so that the climaxes gained in impact. The cathedral acoustic worked wonders with this audial assault, and even more so for what followed: if one wants a composer to outblast Tchaikovsky, one could not pick better than Berlioz.

His long-gestated setting of the Te Deum, like his Requiem and recently discovered Mass, is rich in choral and orchestral bombast, taking its lead from, among other composers of the Revolutionary era, his teacher, Le Sueur (whose massive works maybe merit rediscovery). The organ part, shared between the (here) flamboyant duo Peter Dyke and Christopher Allsop, contributed much throughout; the lower voices were in as fine fettle as the brass section; the chorus Sanctus was truly vivid; and the final section, "Judex crederis" ("We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge"), with its descending bell-like effects, was as thrilling as the rest.

The Philharmonia, who lent such musical excellence to the whole week, and has now embarked on an official three-year residency with the Three Choirs Festival, played like eager beavers; and Bowen, impres-sively relaxed but patently the hero of the week, secured another feather in his cap.

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