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Eastern Three Choirs launched

03 July 2015

Roderic Dunnett enjoys an imaginative programme


A WARM welcome, as clerics are fond of saying, to the Eastern Three Choirs Festival (ETCF).

Its most famous sister event, the Three Choirs, celebrates its third century this year in Hereford. Now the ETCF has joined those other gatherings the Southern, the Yorkshire, and (hitherto) the Borders Three Choirs Festivals, by bringing together Lincoln, Peterborough, and Southwell to form a magnificent triple chorus. It had an imaginative programme.

This lively event's first outing was at Lincoln over four days last month. There were lectures; harpsichord and organ recitals (Philippe Lefebvre of Notre-Dame de Paris; later in the year, Lincoln's own Organist Laureate, Colin Walsh, who surely knows more about interpreting French organ repertoire than anyone this side of la Manche, will perform); a delightfully designed song recital featuring Tennyson, and led by David Owen Norris and the tenor Mark Wilde; and an appearance by the violinist Tasmin Little and the pianist Piers Lane, joined by the three choirs singing Elgar and Tippett. Little and Lane also gave a recital and masterclass. There was jazz, and compline.

The last featured all three cathedral choirs. Their joint recital with the versatile ensemble Sinfonia Viva, shared by the three choral directors, formed a highlight of this inaugural celebration.

Paul Hale, Rector Chori at Southwell and a celebrated teacher and recitalist, showed with the taster, "Zadok the Priest", that phasing the dynamics subtly is the key to producing a first-rate, well-engineered performance of this hoary Handelian favourite. Later, with "O Hearken Thou", he revealed how - with a spacious reading - the debt of Elgar to Wagner, so audible in Gerontius, is audible in the lesser choral music also.

It was Stephen Grahl, one year into his post as Director of Music at Peterborough, and previously at New College, Oxford, who brought Mozart's 1779 Coronation Mass to life. The Gloria was not so much belligerent as beautifully crisp and finely driven; the Credo, given a virile attack and launch by the girls as much as the boys, has a semichorus midway that was positively mesmerising: these were professional performances, excellently balanced.

If the Sanctus lacked a little weight, and the Benedictus began with a glimpse of hesitancy, the Agnus Dei, launched meltingly by quasi-muted strings, and by immensely stylish upper voices, was shapely and poised, with especially fine oboes in attendance. This was a quality reading, with a refreshingly fervent ending.

As Lincoln's Director of Music, Aric Prentice was host for the occasion. It was he who managed the most interesting offering of the evening, Gerald Finzi's late Magnificat, written for an American choir, and the composer's first work composed for foreign forces. It is a piece that speaks loud, from the initial brass, the soaring choir, and some expressive soli that rise above the main forces. "He hath put down" is famously aggressive, and its urgency was forcefully caught here. As finely modulated was Finzi's mesmerising, hushed treatment of "He hath filled the hungry", which unleashes what sounded like a curious, almost eerie, ATB trio.

There was plenty of expressive colouring in this reading. The three choirs had done their homework. So, too, with Walton's Coronation Te Deum, which sounded as if it had borrowed from Britten rather than the other way round. With the Mozart as effective centrepiece, this was a hugely impressive concert.

Fresh down from Durham's Magna Carta bonanza, Philip Moore introduced three of his choral works, each original and satisfying in its way: "For lo, I raise up" exemplifies how, with Moore, you never know what expressive harmony or unexpected cadence is coming next, always logical and interesting, to steer the work on a new path. This was a concert given by the voluntary choirs of Southwell and Lincoln, who ably contribute back home when the main choirs are off duty.

Hilary Punnett, Assistant Organist of Lincoln, presented Taverner's Dum Transisset Sabbatum and Robert Parsons' sublime Ave Maria, which she also directed at compline the night before. These Lincoln performances seemed precise but perhaps a little plain, coaxed by a sweeping, demonstrative, and yet rather unspecific beat. For real precision and detail, the highlight was delivered by Southwell's Assistant Director of Music, Simon Hogan, exploring the wonderful Miserere by Byrd (organist of Lincoln from 1563-72), and offering with his singers from Southwell a beautifully unexaggerated, tripping reading of Ascendit Deus by Peter Philips.

Moore's eventual championing of less-well-known Stanford ("For lo, I raise up", a magnificent piece) exemplified nothing so well as the remarkable togetherness and attentiveness of these two fine choirs. Both had done their preparation impeccably. In this satisfying afternoon concert, it showed at every turn.

Perhaps two suggestions: first, the texts for all choral music should be supplied to the audience: it is a serious deficiency not to do so. And, second, with forces of this high quality, there might be a case for taking a leaf from the Three Choirs Festival and risking more substantial choral works in this encouraging new festival. The Mozart Mass indeed qualified as such. But other large-scale pieces rather than those accessible in the normal evensong repertory might bring their rewards, too.

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