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Anglo-German theme for Three Choirs

22 August 2014

Roderic Dunnett went to the festival, as it returned this year to Worcester Cathedral


Roses of Picardy? The German composer Torsten Rasch (foreground) receives applause and a bouquet at the première of his First World War piece A Foreign Field, commissioned for the Three Choirs

Roses of Picardy? The German composer Torsten Rasch (foreground) receives applause and a bouquet at the première of his First World War piece A Fore...

TANGLEWOOD or Aspen, in the United States; Aix-en-Provence or Montpellier, in France; Styriarte or Bregenz, in Austria; Finland's Savonlinna, or Esa-Pekka Salonen's new Baltic Festival; the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest; or Istanbul Music Festival - none of these is chorally a match for England's Three Choirs Festival.

The oldest music festival in the world, founded probably in 1715 (as next year's jamboree will remind us), the Three Choirs perambulates between three Midland cathedrals: Hereford, Gloucester, and, this year, Worcester, where it enjoyed its first outing under the cathedral's new Scots-born organist and director of music, Dr Peter Nardone.

Each Three Choirs musical director assembles hundreds of performers, including invariably top-notch soloists, to fill a week with music, especially choral music, on a massive scale.

There are also sideshows and events at gorgeous venues, of which, this year, one was the Georgian Great Witley Church, next to the great ruined palace of Witley Court, for the string-quartet version of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Our Saviour from the Cross.

Other festivals do opera in vast swaths, but I cannot think of another that delivers choral music with such finesse, elation, commitment, and fervour. This applies to the boys, the choirmen, and, above all, the three-county Festival Chorus. This is no longer in need (as it was even in Elgar's day) of being supplemented by forces from Leeds, Birmingham, Stoke, Hanley, and Bristol. The three cities and their hinterland manage all this excellence for themselves.

The festival gives an airing to a wealth of great choral works, interspersed with choral evensong and numerous recitals. These three cathedrals, even after the celebrated era of John Sanders, Roy Massey, and Donald Hunt, train some of the best musicians in the land (Worcester has now added girls). Organ recitals are also featured in the festival, putting young talent on show, offset by the experience of veterans such as Peter Dyke and the hard-worked and versatile Christopher Allsop.

Instrumental and choral events alike give audiences an opportunity to enjoy repertoire by composers whose work is more novel to Three Choirs listeners: composers such as Joseph Phibbs, Paul Mealor, Sally Beamish, or Erich Korngold (his piano quintet). His luscious violin concerto got an outing with full orchestra in an eloquent if not quite Heifetz-quality reading by the Brodsky Quartet's Andrew Haveron. Among the visiting choirs, the Rodolfus and the Eton Choir Course, despite their youth, were all but a match for the King's Singers, although the programming of these concerts I always find bland and unimaginative compared with other events.

On the art-song front, the baritone Roderick Williams, who is unmatched in English repertoire, commemorated the First World War at the Huntingdon Hall. His choice of composers included Ernest Farrar - Finzi's teacher, killed in 1918; John Ireland ("The Soldier", setting Rupert Brooke two years after the poet's death); Denis Browne (Brooke's pallbearer, killed six weeks later, though intriguingly credited in the programme with living till 1967); and Sir Arthur Somervell, who like Moeran, was schooled at Uppingham ("The Street Sounds to the Soldiers' Tread").

We also heard Anthony Payne's "Adlestrop" - penned not long before the author of the poem, Edward Thomas (to whom tribute was paid in the Festival Commission) marched off to be obliterated near Arras on Easter Monday, 1917. Where, apart from Ludlow, can one hear such intense and inspired programming of English art song?

Britten's War Requiem speaks for itself as not just a commemoration of a five-year horror, but as a form of reconciliation truly in tune with the spirit in which Coventry Cathedral, for which it was commissioned, unfolded its fresh vision of the future. At the work's close, Owen's famous poem "Strange Meeting" ("You are the enemy I killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark") was sung like a ghostly eclogue by that supreme master David Wilson-Johnson, and the always inspired James Oxley.

As so often, an expected disappointment - the indisposition of Susan Gritton - yielded unforeseen rewards. Thus it was that the young Guildhall- and Leipzig-trained soprano Katherine Broderick - later quite marvellous in a Mahler Second Symphony under the breathtakingly articulate Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha - took on the Helen Harper and (latterly) Galina Vishnevskaya role. She was shattering in the Lacrimosa: a kind of angular, cruel cousin of Rachmaninov's sublime Vocalise. If Nardone did not make the confident impact he might have hoped in this debut, it was because, conducting alone (Britten had shared the work with another former Three Choirs organist, Meredith Davies), he sought to exercise a commendable restraint in a work that can suffer from bombast.

His conducting of the three cathedral boys' and men's choirs in Bach's B-minor Mass was, to my mind, exemplary, not least in risking the slow pace that he did in conjunction with the countertenor William Towers, yielding a sensational final movement.

Nardone suffered mutterings and gentle flak for programming "Best of British: Festival Finale", a sort of Last Night of the Proms with the Philharmonia Orchestra for the concluding Saturday night. True, to have a community opera instead, as at Gloucester in 2013, does have merits, though one as good as The Bargee's Wife, arguably does not have to be relegated to the last night.

But an on-form Nardone went on to deliver a scintillating programme with real flair and a great deal of excellence. Sarah Connolly sang Elgar's Sea Pictures with ten times the wisdom and insight she brought last time she did it here. And what wondrous Parry! Prince Charles is right: Parry really is the tops.

The Philharmonia, marshalled by its managing director, David Whelton (who always attends all week, overseeing a full residency such as the orchestra enjoys with Canterbury and Leicester), and led on this occasion with discipline and character by Soong Choo, is not just the feather in the Three Choirs Festival's cap, but its crown. With the Philharmonia, you know that the orchestral playing will be sublime. It goes for all departments, not least those summoned to prominence in this year's significant new commission from Torsten Rasch, A Foreign Field.

You heard the calibre of the Philharmonia's brass - desperately important - in Geraint Bowen's conducting of Dvořák's UK- commissioned Stabat Mater (Royal Albert Hall, 1883): the work written when the thirty-something composer and his wife, Anna, had lost all three of their children (they started again).

Rasch made his name by a massive work, Mein Herz brennt, for solo voices and orchestra, which, maybe surprisingly, drew its inspiration from a German pop group and pop idiom, variously admired and derided. He contributed a song cycle, simply entitled Songs, as a commission for last year's Gloucester Festival, setting two Ivor Gurney poems alongside Housman (how many Germans have set Housman, who, thanks to Heine's influence, seems like the epitome of the Austro-German Lieder-writer?); and, if rumours are to believed, he looks like becoming the festival's darling at all three venues.

Rasch, born in 1965, grew up in Ulbricht and Honecker's East Germany, witnessed in his first 14 years both the modest economic and social successes and the failures of the ruling SED, and emerged the kind of German - maybe less brash, perhaps even more diffident - that the East often generated. To be born in Dresden, or Zwickau, Luther's Wittenberg, or Magdeburg, perhaps means something worth while: it is not to know or presume that one has a right to wealth, or grandiosity, or even (in those days) a flat.

You sense that honesty and integrity, dignity and beauty, in Rasch's music, and you sense, too, the man in the kind of poetry he is drawn to. He has chosen to centre his aptly named new work on Gurney's friend and influence Edward Thomas, but, under the direction of the Swiss whiz-kid Baldur Brönniman, and with soloists of the calibre of the lyric tenor Peter Hoare - fresh from his recent triumph at the ENO (Thebans) - and Williams once again, this work seemed destined for greatness. Some of the solos were a little too subdued in delivery, but A Foreign Field will (I feel), and certainly should, be done in the next four commemorative years by choruses across the land, and in Germany, too.

But perhaps not for the reason I would have chosen. Conscious of tight and limited rehearsal schedules for a huge - and magnificent - choir with a heavy schedule all in one week, Rasch seems to have reined himself in. He is a modernist in many respects, rooted in many of those Austro-German influences that we in England (except, for example, Delius, whose Walk to the Paradise Garden, one of Nardone's Last Night treasures, is as German as it gets) know frankly too little of. Rasch can write like Webern. Thus it is that even when he sets poets of his own nation - some wonderful Rilke at the close, or passages of the violent Expressionist Georg Trakl (who perished in November 1914, aged 27, in the Great War on the Austrian side) - I wanted something more uncompromising, even such as Peter Maxwell Davies invoked when setting Trakl in 1966.

What Rasch captured, exquisitely, and what, paradoxically, the polished voices of members of the Kantorei der Kreuzkirche, Chemnitz (till 1990 known as Karl-Marx-Stadt) warmly contributed to, was the English rural and pastoral gentleness that Thomas expressed perfectly before the war. That tenderness was there in Rasch's exposé abundance. It made the work superbly singable by other choirs who may choose to take it up. But the bombs, the gas, the mutilated horses, the half-torn-off faces - these I did not find in this truly wise and beautiful work. Perhaps I had no right to wish it.

Torsten Rasch is published by Faber Music: www.fabermusic.com/composers/torsten-rasch.

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