War and peace in Gloucester

19 August 2016

Roderic Dunnett hears works old and new at the Three Choirs

Ash Mills

The long view: Gloucester Cathedral

The long view: Gloucester Cathedral

THE Three Choirs Festival has its share of royal associations. The Plantagenet Henry III was crowned in Gloucester Cathedral, aged nine, in 1216 — an event duly celebrated at this year’s festival, attended, on different nights, by the Prince of Wales, festival patron, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.

Under this year’s director, the cathedral organist, Adrian Partington, the festival fielded as usual a huge chorus and meticulously prepared repertoire; the Philharmonia Orchestra, which is now formally resident at every festival; and the energetic youth contingents, not just the choristers of the three cathedrals, but the older and younger members of the Three Choirs Festival Youth Chorus.

Brass from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama interspersed the opening service with vibrant musical arrangements, of Byrd, Elgar, Finzi, and Walton, and in particular, a resplendent adaptation by Matthew Martin of the Marche pontificale from Widor’s Symphony No. 1.

A performance of Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom launched the evening concerts resonantly in the nave and revealed new layers to the work. In the interludes, for instance, that heralding the touching section “At The Beautiful Gate”, Adrian Partington drew playing from the Philharmonia of rare beauty and eloquence — not least, from the flutes, who excelled all week.

The duet between Mary and Mary Magdalene (Claire Rutter and Sarah Connolly) was intensely expressive, with wallowing clarinet near the close, and their solos likewise, with some finely managed rubato, especially for Mary’s ‘The sun goeth down’, linked by a violin solo.

Peter’s proclamation “Men and Brethren” and his command “Repent — and be baptized” were urgent and forthright. The chorus was given to savage outbursts (‘What meaneth this? These men are full of new wine”); but, while allowing the drama to show through, Partington also exercised superb restraint so as to maintain a highly effective balance and variety between the sections. The results were gloriously animated, and an additional pleasure was St John, sung at zero notice and to splendid effect by the 18-year-old Magnus Walker, since James Oxley (who was present) was indisposed. The rewards of this fine performance are too many to list. The Kingdom began the week in superb style.

 

THE horrors of war in 1916 were duly commemorated with a fascinating and bold large-scale work, War Passion, by Philip Lancaster, arrestingly performed in Cirencester Parish Church by the St Cecilia Singers, with the accomplished Bristol Ensemble.

Lancaster draws on a variety of sources, centring them on the trial and crucifixion, but widening this to include war poetry by Julian Grenfell (especially), Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, and Edmund Blunden, as well as psalms and potent comments from Venantius Fortunatus and Herbert Read, with grieving flute. All Lancaster’s orchestral detail — eerie strings, and later flute and double bass, for Gethsemane and the ensuing Grenfell “The blackbird sings”, cello and bass, ceding to viola, as the preface to Golgotha; or the full orchestral interlude that follows the Rosenberg (“These layers of piled up skulls”) — is gripping and appealing. Here and there, the writing (as in the long Robert Graves passage) is quite dense, as might seem apt for this grim text (“Down in the mud I lay”) and in this situation. All in all, War Passion stands up well beside other, well-known, war-memorial works.

One of those was Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem, composed in 1936, and conducted in a memorable reading by Hereford’s director of music, Geraint Bowen.

The violent, clashing setting of Walt Whitman’s “blow! bugles! blow!”, the expressive baritone solo ‘Word over all, beautiful as the sky”, and the ensuing “Dirge for two veterans” provided magical contrasts, bringing out the part-optimistic, part-valedictory nature of this work. The Lark Ascending, which preceded, evokes its own elegy: the lark was the bird heard constantly between the trenches. The Philharmonia leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s poignant playing emphasised the perky confidence of this high-flying creature.

 

THE Three Cathedral Choirs’ evening recital, excellently enunciated by boys and men, yielded yet another marvel: not just Mozart’s Requiem with a splendid Dies Irae, eloquent Sanctus, and striking solo quartet for the Benedictus, but, prefacing that, an astonishingly rewarding eight-minute Te Deum, composed by the 13-year-old Mozart, and easily up to the standards of his best work. It was sung with real gusto.

Midweek brought another surprise. Edward Gardner, himself a former Gloucester Cathedral chorister, returned to conduct Berlioz’s Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts). The reception desk apprehensively made earplugs available, conscious, no doubt, of this work’s notorious reputation for wild brass outbursts. Yet this proved far from the truth. Abetted by the Philharmonia, Gardner kept almost the entire work — bar one brassy movement — fascinatingly restrained. Swaths of the Dies Irae, paradoxically, were blissfully soft (even “mors stupebit et natura”). Robert Murray, the tenor soloist, was impressively quiet in the higher reaches of the Sanctus. The result was a wholly new experience, recalling the sadder moments of Berlioz’s Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale.

 

SEVERAL of the afternoon concerts were in St Barnabas’s, Tuffley. The soprano Olga Pasichnyk produced a programme rich in Ukrainian songs. The pianist Mark Bebbington drew some interesting comparisons between Rachmaninov and English composers. The tenor James Gilchrist’s recital, “Mindsong”, reflected the name of the charity given prominence this year.

Marcus Farnsworth offered a beautifully modulated recital, including Finzi, a fine reading of Ivor Gurney (“Lights Out”, his cycle based on Edward Thomas), and a most striking première, the talented Matthew Martin’s three-part Sonnets of Petrarch, dark and expressive.

The proficient and stylish vocal ensemble Stile Antico performed some unusual Monteverdi — originally secular items, to which sacred texts were introduced by an Italian priest-musician; the delicate mille regretz of Josquin, and some cavorting Janequin (the military parody La guerre). The secular songWestron Wynde” and the Sanctus from John Taverner’s Mass Western Wynde and the charming Entre vous filles of Clemens non Papa exemplified the positive way the group paired original secular melodies with Masses (Parody Masses) based on them. In a late-night concert, the ensemble Conductus in their own vital way likewise found links between sacred and secular music (virelais) of the early Plantagenet period.

 

NEW or recent works featured in the choral evensongs. “Mary’s Lullaby”, a setting of an anonymous medieval text, was composed by Joshua Pacey, winner of the competition commemorating John Sanders, former Organist of Gloucester. The Wednesday broadcast evening introduced a chant by Kendrick Partington (1925-2014), late father of the present organist. The opening Responses were by Ashley Grote, former assistant of Gloucester and now Organist of Norwich Cathedral.

The night after the gifted violinist Jack Liebeck gave an insightful performance of Tchaikovsky’s romantic Violin Concerto, the Three Choirs turned its attention to Mendelssohn’s Elijah, first heard in Birmingham Town Hall in August 1846. Worcester’s Peter Nardone took the helm, and by adopting a restrained pace achieved a particularly atmospheric mood in some earlier movements.

This was also the moment for the tenor Peter Auty, as Obadiah, to imprint himself on the festival with his strongly impassioned outpourings, later heard in Mahler. Passages for soprano (Angel) and mezzo (Widow) led to the arrival of Sir Willard White, healing the Widow’s son. The chorus, on fine dramatic form, contrasted vividly the roles of Priests of Baal and followers of Elijah. But it was the latter’s intensity “‘Is not his word like a fire . . . ?”), his superb recitative (“The Lord hath exalted thee from among the people”) and his noble resignation, when the pagan chorus is revived by Jezebel (“O Lord, now take away my life”), which rendered Sir Willard such a distinguished interpreter of the prophet’s role.

Vivid late choruses (“Behold, God the Lord passed by!”), with tremendous thrust and powerful canonic writing, and sundry solos — latterly trumpet and then oboe — all helped make Nardone’s a highly satisfying reading. No wonder Victorian audiences took to it so passionately.

 

“I AM the abbot of Cucany and I like to drink with my friends.” The wine-bibbing monks of Benediktbeuren might have been delighted to see the manuscripts from their 13th-century library set to music with such vigour and indecorous choral panache. More than 20 of these blissfully impudent documents, in church Latin and German, were set by Carl Orff, some featuring a baritone solo — here David Stout, who delivered a most entertaining and mischievous performance, backed by Adrian Partington’s encouragement of his high-spirited chorus.

The men’s evocation of the wheel of Fortune, the full choir’s vivacious greeting to spring (“Ecce gratum et optatum”), and the tragic evocation of a wild swan on a spit, with a cheeky tenor solo from Russell Painter, not to mention the delightful children’s choir (“Amor volat undique”), all contributed to a deliciously outrageous performance — exactly as the piece should be.

Partington also introduced Memento Musica, a skidaddling orchestral prelude by Joseph Phibbs. Noble proclamatory brass, skittering strings, highly effective counterpoint, strange windlike effects from the wind department, and nervy, anxious sequences for strings, woodwind, and tuba all had their effect.

 

THE most masterly performance of all was yet to come. This was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, a work of gigantic proportions, which offers the perfect opportunity for a chorus of these glorious dimensions to show its mettle and reveal its dazzling talents.

Indeed, the first half, which was thrilling, is given entirely to the choir, and is a massive setting of the Pentecostal text Veni creator spiritus. Partington produced an explosive, powerfully driven, almost cataclysmic reading from the choir, all the more pleasing as the boys’ and children’s choruses were so vital an addition.

In the second part, no fewer than seven soloists take over, and the poetry is hugely expressive, being drawn from the visionary Second Part of Goethe’s Faust. Every solo excelled, but perhaps three stood out: Auty, wonderfully vigorous as Dr Marianus; and Mary Plazas and Hye-Youn Lee as a profound penitent and as St Mary Magdalene. The well-sung words were violently dramatic, and the whole triumphant performance left one amazed at its vigour, coherence, and genuine excitement.

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