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
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
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.