IN TWO years' time at Hereford, the Three Choirs Festival will
celebrate its (putative) tercentenary. In 2014, at Worcester, it
will honour the First World War, with a commission from the
Dresden-born composer Torsten Rasch.
The Festival was back in Gloucester this year. It may date back
to the 18th century, but it is a model 21st-century event.
Everything about the organisation is top-notch. Practical problems
are mopped up rapidly. This year's most vexing was external noise
that nearly wrecked the first song recital at the newly restored
Fortunately, the baritone Roderick Williams, a regular at the
Three Choirs, with his ravishing command of English song delivered
invariably from memory, seemed quite unfazed. His recital included
Rasch's Songs, a foretaste of next year. You can hear how
those composers Rasch has been likened to - Mahler, Schoenberg,
Berg, and Webern - all play out in his informed style, which is
infused with much else - even pop music.
He here sets words by the Second World War poet Alun Lewis, and
Gloucester's own Ivor Gurney. The poems are evocative of war and a
passage from darkness to light: coming last, Housman's two-stanza
"Here dead we lie Because we did not choose To live and shame the
land From which we sprung. Life, to be sure, Is nothing much to
lose, But young men think it is, And we were young" surely says it
all, for next year as well as any.
Half of the joy of the English Lied is the texts chosen
for setting. Richard Sisson (b. 1957), for instance, included the
last poem in a cycle full of Housman rarities: "Yonder see the
morning blink", "They say my verse is sad: no wonder" - which ends:
"This is for all ill-treated fellows, Unborn and unbegot, For them
to read when they're in trouble And I am not."
William Blake was especially featured: Britten's Songs and
Proverbs, weeping the hopelessless of the human condition;
Nicholas Marshall's (b. 1942) tender and spare "The Garden of
Love"; and the best item in the programme, Williams's own
treatments of "The Angel" and "The Shepherd" - with late warm
ninths redolent of Vaughan Williams - which drew on each part of
Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Even the single
Holst song, setting a moving dialogue, "What will they give me when
journey's done?" by Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940), spoke reams. Not
everyone understood why the word-sheets were issued afterwards; it
was an annoyance.
Among the other recitals, I was struck by one given by the
baritone Philip Lancaster, a world expert on Gurney's songs, who in
"An Elizabethan Centenary" presented, at St Mary de Lode, English
music with harp and a wind sextet. This was a polished young
ensemble from the Welsh College of Music and Drama. The programme
included Parry, Stanford, Finzi, and Gurney's friend Marion Scott -
her Romance, here with clarinet and harp. Oboe, as the
composer intended, would have been better.
The mezzo-soprano Susanna Spicer sang her part agreeably; but it
is Lancaster's own voice that gave special pleasure. The harpist
Megan Morris shone in Howells's Prelude No. 1; and Spicer in his
melancholic song "King David", in which Lancaster's cleverly
thoughtful instrumentation felt as silky as Ravel. Only the title
cycle, Gurney's five Elizabethan Songs, seemed not quite
to work: so effective was the instrumentation that it diverted from
Shakespeare's and Fletcher's (though not Nashe's) words. Still,
this was what Gurney intended.
Blackfriars behaved impeccably for the tenor Robert Murray's
song recital. He performed beautifully the bulk of a programme
plotted by Andrew Kennedy, who was indisposed; and the venue proved
uplifting for that small a cappella group The Songmen.
This adroit vocal sextet seemed to have all the merits of the
King's Singers without the froth (though the pointless and unfunny
bass round-off to their tragic "Skye Boat Song" ran that risk). It
was a mistake, to my mind, to programme Janequin's La
Guerre - 16th-century military spoof par excellence -
instead of his jauntier farmyard efforts, alongside Poulenc's
"Margoton" and "Clic, clac".
The Estonian Urmas Sisask's (b. 1960) Heliseb Väljadel
- a touching prayer - came close to a Baltic "My Way": utterly
wonderful from a polished gem of a group. Guy Lewis's top line is
the plum; the second countertenor and arranger Ben Sawyer is a
Gloucester was all agog for the arrival of Vladimir Ashkenazy to
conduct, in his idiosyncratic, understated way, the Philharmonia
and the Festival Chorus in the first night's gala concert.
Ashkenazy was indeed a catch, though I would still put my money on
the locally residing conductor Martyn Brabbins (missing this year,
although we did get the Gloucestershire pianist Peter Donohoe
astounding us in Liszt's B-minor Sonata and Wagner); or the
home-grown chorister Edward Gardner, who returned midweek to
conduct Wagner and Verdi.
But the real gala winners were in other categories: composer and
performer. As one who knows far better than I remarked, the
Festival Chorus - superb two decades ago when I first attended -
has grown better and better. Their stamina is more reliable. They
are better prepared and musically more sophisticated. They can now
mix dynamism with subtlety, and, where necessary, rein themselves
in. They now effortlessly rival the big BBC or London orchestra
Elgar, Sibelius, and Rachmaninov were Ashkenazy's composers -
his kind of repertoire. He turned Elgar's Straussian overture
In the South into a massive, beautifully spaced narrative,
just as Adrian Partington did later with the rarer
Falstaff. And with Rachmaninov's Edgar Allan Poe-based
The Bells - Sleigh, Wedding Alarum, Mourning -
"molten-golden", "a liquid ditty", "a gush of euphony": delicious
Whitman-anticipating gush - he alchemised the chorus itself to
But it was Sibelius who stole the show: the soprano Helena
Juntunen brought such wonderment to Luonnotar (the
founding of the universe by the daughter of heaven, lamenting her
solitude), a spare, striking vocal scena commissioned for
the 1913 Three Choirs, which was an inspired choice by Partington
and his committee. She was to be outshone by another Baltic soloist
at the week's end, but her aching solo made one walk out of the
cathedral on air.
A gripe: French, German, and Italian words were printed
elsewhere in the programme; so why not Russian (transliterated) and
Finnish here? Were these languages judged too difficult for the
average Three Choirs punter? That would be nonsense. Nor can an
economic defence apply: the Three Choirs is about excellence in all
Much else sang out in the Gloucester nave, which is wonderful
for sound (the side aisles are perhaps even better). Worcester's
Peter Nardone served up a valiant attempt to make the case for
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's tripartite The Song of Hiawatha.
I found Part I, Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, jingoistic
rubbish; but The Death of Minnehaha was a different kettle
of fish - far subtler; and, while Nardone's full conducting
confidence has yet to be proven (he is a fine singer, who began his
career as a boy soloist at Paisley Abbey), he and the orchestra
worked wonders with Hiawatha's Departure, orchestrally
There was Arvo Pärt - not, unfortunately, in person (he sent a
message), but conducted by one of his and other Baltic composers'
doughtiest exponents, Stephen Layton. Layton also daringly assayed
Sibelius's Second Symphony, a treat in that acoustic, with which
the Philharmonia's vast experience had no trouble.
On the Wednesday, the baritone David Stout boomed the great bass
introduction to the choral finale of Beethoven's Ninth - never a
particularly apt Three Choirs inclusion, I feel - under Geraint
Bowen's direction. It was Bowen who imaginatively prefaced an
afternoon concert by one of the festival's several youth choirs
with Britten's rarely heard choral pearl Hymn to St Peter.
Young soloists in Rejoice in the Lamb, the bass
especially, did well.
Edward Gardner, a former Gloucester boy soloist (under John
Sanders, ten years since whose death was marked by the performance
of several works) brought more professionalism than character to
Verdi's Four Sacred Pieces, which are difficult to pull
off. But his Tannhäuser overture - brass superb after a
hint of tentativeness - was stunning. A vocal revelation, Emma
Bell, standing in for Sarah Connolly, made hairs tingle in the
Wesendonck Lieder - another centenary tribute to
Perhaps the tribute to end all Wagner tributes was Partington's
prefacing of one of the finest performances of The Dream of
Gerontius most of us will hear with the Prelude to
Parsifal, a work whose impact on Elgar, from score, was
clearly immense. This hearing suggested that the parallels in
Gerontius's early bars were fewer, or more superficial,
than one had hoped; and yet clearly the one gave birth to the
But why was Partington's Gerontius so overwhelming?
True, he had what some might see as the UK's best orchestra,
superbly led by Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, now a Three Choirs fixture.
True, he had an exquisite young Gerontius in Toby Spence, the full
beauty of his tenor voice now restored after a debilitating
illness; the lesser asset of the usually superb bass-baritone
Matthew Rose, whose Priest and keeper of God's House both sounded
underwhelming (more familiarity with the acoustic might have
helped); and the Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel, who was the
most affecting Angel I have ever heard (even Janet Baker
But it was Partington's insight into expressive oratorio, with
its searing text from Cardinal Newman, which was the miracle of
this festival. I sensed here, in someone who is also chorus
director to the BBC National Chorus of Wales, an ability to crawl
inside a huge score and see it all. The intelligence, the detail,
the subtlety of intricate timing, the intimate rubati,
each impeccably prepared and conducted, were awesome. Had he a
direct line to its maker?