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Three Choirs: superb at 300

21 August 2015

Roderic Dunnett on a feast of great classics and new commissions

© ash mills

In the height: the opening service of the tercentenary Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral

In the height: the opening service of the tercentenary Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral

THE Three Choirs Festival has been celebrating its 300th birthday. It is the oldest known example of a festival of its kind in Europe. In his introduction to the packed festival programme, Prince Charles welcomed the presentation by the artistic director, Geraint Bowen, of great works from three centuries, and new commissions pointing the way ahead for years to come.

With important works by Elgar (The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures), Beethoven (Missa Solemnis), Bach (St Matthew Passion),Verdi (Requiem), Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring), and Messiaen (Turangalîla-Symphonie), together with much else, this was a musical event of national significance.

The 2015 Festival, held in Hereford under the energetic chairmanship of Clare Wichbold, has excelled in commissioning new pieces. On top of its Young Artist recitals, it has run its own choral-composition competition, won by young George Arthur, with his Prayer of Thomas Ken (a setting of "Glory to thee, my God, this night"), heard at the Sunday-evening service. Stargazer (words by W. H. Davies and others) was a new commission from Alec Roth, closely associated with Ex Cathedra choir, for the expressive ensemble Voces8.

Anthony Powers, Herefordshire-based, honoured Bach’s organ output with his new chorale prelude O Gott, du frommer Gott for John Scott’s well-received morning recital — sadly, now one of that great musician’s last engagements. The midweek service by the Three Cathedral Choirs under Geraint Bowen featured a newly commissioned Evening Service by Bob Chilcott, a composer whose writing posed challenges, each handsomely overcome.

The highlight of the baritone Roderick Williams’s first appearance — apart from an intriguing male-voice rendition of Elgar’s cycle Sea Pictures — was A Swift Radiant Morning, a setting by Rhian Samuel, a composer of real standing, of five poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley. It is a work of striking originality in its treatment of some of Sorley’s more poignant writings. A centenary was remembered: a young officer, Sorley died at Loos in 1915, aged 20, picked off in his trench by an enemy sniper.

Meanwhile, the evening concerts took off in grand style. I wasn’t easy with Geraint Bowen’s actual opening of The Dream of Gerontius: it felt almost nervously fast, so that the lulling similarity to Wagner’s Parsifal — highlighted at a recent festival — was perhaps reduced.

But what followed was a galvanising performance, with the tenor Paul Nilon, a late stand-in as Gerontius, admirably pained and passionate (he had impressed many at the last Gloucester Festival opening concert, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy). Bowen’s Festival Chorus revealed the verve, intelligence, and commitment that it was to show all week, not least in some superbly modulated dynamics under four conductors.


SIR ANDREW DAVIS, who stayed on for much of the week, tendered a profound performance of Sir Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes, setting the poetry of Walt Whitman, Homer, and later — in this huge elegy for the fallen of the Great War, who included Bliss’s younger brother — of Wilfred Owen (who died) and Robert Nichols (who survived).

The narrator’s role fell to Malcolm Sinclair, standing in for an absent Samuel West. The men excelled in "The City Arming", a long and (here) electrifying passage from Whitman echoing the departure of Hector. Bliss was a widely read man: the sensitive chorus upper voices’ intoning of an eighth-century Chinese poem was a high spot of the week.

These evening concerts drew their strength from superb orchestral playing by one of the world’s great orchestras, the Philharmonia, which now has an annual residency with the Three Choirs. There was much memorable and arresting string playing under their Hungarian concert master, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay — a wonderful soloist in his own right.

Violin solos played a special part in what proved the most inspired evening of the week, a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Three Cathedral Choirs and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Bowen. Bracing though his Gerontius (with Sarah Connolly and Neal Davies as the guiding Angels) was, and his Verdi Requiem (uplifted by the passages for the mezzo, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, and the soprano Katherine Broderick) were, Bowen achieved something with this Passion performance which was quite out of the ordinary.

The girls’ chorale ("O Lamm Gottes"), which cut through everything at the start, was a brilliant dramatic coup: they gleamed in a dazzling, almost unnerving, but certainly uplifting way. The choirboys’ commitment and obvious keen preparation yielded its own kind of edge to everything they sang: "Thou that destroyest God’s temple", or the trebles and notably expressive altos upholding the tenor solo’s "I shall be watching with my Jesus".

The strong soloist himself, Anthony Gregory, was a former Hereford chorister under Dr Roy Massey. But the younger members (and their mentors) deserved huge credit for mastering the original German so competently and apparently effortlessly.

The tenor James Oxley deserves the laurels for his superbly articulate singing from memory of the Evangelist: as fluid, fluent, and expressive as one could wish. William Towers was by turns demonstrative and lulling in the alto (countertenor) arias and recits ("Erbarme dich", "Ach Golgotha"). But, above all, it was a chance for the audience to savour a superb soloist singing the Christus part: the bass-baritone Matthew Brook. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow", part of the Gethsemane section, and "Could ye not watch with me for one hour?" typified the emotive intensity and beautiful projection — and striking stage persona — of this exceptionally fine singer. The two OAE violin soloists were, in different ways, superb, as were two transverse flutes (for Towers’s "Buss und Reu"; and paired Baroque oboes for the soprano’s "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken".

Geraint Bowen’s keen pushing of the pace midway, and swift, spirited chorales, not to everyone’s taste, in fact worked marvellously in driving the central Passion drama along, leaving space for the later crucifixion narrative to breathe by contrast. This elevating performance, and the deep feeling it engendered in all, was a personal triumph for him. For his triple choir, no praise is too high.


TO BOWEN and his committee we owed the programming of the whole week. To Peter Nardone, Worcester’s festival director last year, fell William Mathias’s Lux Aeterna, an exquisitely varied requiem (for Mathias’s mother) commissioned for the Hereford Three Choirs in 1982. It was launched by boys’ choir with the first pair of four Marian prayers, and featured three upper-voiced soloists, each singing a celebrated passage ("Song of the Soul") from St John of the Cross (in Roy Campbell’s translation), and then joining rapturously for a fourth ("In the beginning of all things / the Word lived in the Lord at rest. . .").

Mathias uses the celesta (a mesmerising, tinkling percussion-like keyboard) throughout, to great effect, often playing fast patterns offsetting the choir above, and sometimes paired with the piano, to unusual effect, well managed and paced by Nardone, just as he gave the choir confidence in the battling rhythms (3 against 2) of the "Gloria tibi Trinitas" section.

Carl Nielsen’s Hymnus Amoris preceded, in a rather brilliant Latin translation, though I sense Axel Olrik’s original Danish version might have appealed even more. Perhaps some quiet sequences might have been more restrained; yet the three robust lower-voice soloists (Robert Murray, David Stout, Barnaby Rea) were strong and impressive. This, and earlier Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, was a timely tribute: they commemorated the 150th anniversaries of Nielsen and Sibelius.

Adrian Partington, who will oversee 2016’s festival at Gloucester, took up the cudgels on behalf of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and predictably excelled, showing a mastery of pacing; he is also Chorus Director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Sitting at the very rear of the Hereford nave, I found the impact of this massive work (completed in 1823) somewhat diluted. Yet the power of the alternating choir, soloists and tutti at "Quoniam tu solus" in the Gloria; the magical, abrupt cut-off on its final Amen (contrast the marvellous dying away of the Credo); a series of excitingly built fugues; and the sheer power of the soloists in the Benedictus were all scintillating. The choir tenors, high in their register, impressed. Once again, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay shone in a gorgeous violin solo.


OF THE commissions, the last to be heard gave me greatest pleasure. Torsten Rasch, who grew up as a boy member of the famous Dresdner Kreuzchor, is recognised both here and in his native land as one of Germany’s supremely gifted composers. His orchestral cycle Mein Herz Brennt, based on music and lyrics from the German heavy-metal group Rammstein, catapulted him to fame in 2003. More recently, he produced his second opera, The Duchess of Malfi, in association with English National Opera.

Rasch, who is 50 this year, has already produced two Three Choirs commissions: in 2014, a Great War oratorio, A Foreign Field, which Christopher Morley of the Birmingham Post dubbed "one of the finest, most worthwhile premières I have heard in many years", exploring the letters of Edward Thomas to his wife Helen; and, in 2013, Four Songs, settings of Gurney, Housman and Alun Lewis, for Roderick Williams, whose resplendent recital at Holy Trinity Church (a fine and spacious new venue) launched this festival.

Rasch also supplied an anthem, Housman’s "Here Dead We Lie" for the a cappella Gloucester boys’ choir the same year. Among Hereford’s younger performers, mention should again be made of the mixed-voice Three Choirs Youth Choir, which shone under Peter Nardone in Bob Chilcott’s atmospheric, varied, and vividly orchestrated Requiem (oboe and string quartet; flute and clarinet; horn and then expressive oboe), with an appealing first-movement tenor solo from Ruairi Bowen (formerly of King’s College, Cambridge); and, beforehand, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, in which the countertenor soloist Patrick Dunachie (also from King’s) produced the most beautiful sound I heard all week.

In this final Saturday recital, Rasch’s soloist could scarcely have been bettered: Sarah Connolly won all hearts with her opening trio of Purcell sacred songs, of which the first, "Lord, what is man . . . ?", was fabulously well sung. The words of this and the ensuing "An Evening Hymn" were by Bishop William Fuller (1608-75), latterly Bishop of Lincoln, from the era of Herbert and Donne, Vaughan and Traherne, which perhaps explains the calibre of his verse. Connolly’s singing of these songs, in which Purcell’s music matched the allure of the words, was meltingly beautiful.

But the same held good of Rasch’s 2015 commission, six settings of the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (1915-44), born in one World War and killed in another. Rasch is one of those composers who has absorbed deeply the music of the Second Viennese School, and by his gifts evolved a musical format both approachable and entrancing. Thus the second song, "Black dog barking at the moon", may recall Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) or Das Buch der hängenden Garten (1908-09), and yet emerges wholly fresh and original.

Rasch can evoke the dark and cavernous: "Munition girls with yellow hands Clicking bone needles over khaki scarves", the yellow deriving from the explosive they inject into shells; the witty and yet atmospheric and sympathetic: "O have you seen the sly rat go, Soft, sneaking pawed, Fearing the ever-threatening blow, Outlawed?". His evocative piano accompaniments, mostly independent of the voice, often conjure a mood in counterpoint and constrast to the singer.

He also conjures a kind of musical onomatopoeia, as in "My soul is sleeping", with a low fall in the voice. In the last song, with shifting keys, the pianist (Joseph Middleton) is virtually in canon with himself.

This was a richly engaging cycle, which urgently invites a repeat hearing. Maybe Worcester in 2017 or Hereford in 2018 could programme, while the Great War centenary continues, all three Rasch commissions. I doubt whether such exemplary performances were heard in Hanoverian times. These days, the achievement could hardly be bettered.

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