IN ALMOST three decades of representing the Church Times at the Three Choirs Festival, now just into its fourth century, I have to scratch my memory to recall a single less than fully successful occasion. Just the odd nave concert or ancillary recital may fall short; but these are amazingly rare.
The standard nowadays is consistently superlative. This year’s festival was hosted by Worcester, led by its benign committee chairman Michael Clarke, but achieving its dazzle and musical impetus thanks to the artistic director, Peter Nardone.
Sometimes the annually pre-announced repertoire can look less than thrilling, given we can expect an event whose concerts — think of a recent Turangalîla Symphony from the Philharmonia under Jac van Steen,Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Sir Andrew Davis at the helm. Why, one wonders, programme for this sophisticated audience Faure's Requiem? Or another Dream of Gerontius, after Adrian Partington’s unmatched recent reading? If you must repeat Cardinal Newman, why not assail two Elgar oratorios at an event that almost bears his name?
Elgar’s finest predecessor, Sir Hubert Parry, is a favourite composer of the Prince of Wales, the festival’s Patron. Prince Charles, who attended two recent concerts in Gloucester and Worcester, and celebrated its tercentenary by hosting a concert at Buckingham Palace, rightly classes it — originally a gathering of “a few lovers of harmony” — as “the oldest non-competitive classical-music festival in the world”. A Parry Festival next year at Highnam, Parry’s home outside Gloucester, will include his Ode to the Nativity and his First World War swansong (he died four weeks before the Armistice) Songs of Farewell (more at www.gloucesterchoral.com).
There is more Parry impending. Geraint Bowen and his Hereford team, chaired by Claire Wychbold, have programmed for 2018 not just Parry’s Elegy for Brahms, but in an all-Parry evening: his sumptuously Schumann-inspired Fifth Symphony, easily his best (never performed) oratorio Invocation to Music, together with Dame Ethel Smyth’s great Mass in D and, as a curtain-raiser, Elgar’s King Olaf, the saga of the king who converted the Nordic lands to Christianity.
In his revealing introduction to the 2017 festival, revealing some flamboyance and verve, Peter Nardone outlined cogently the logic behind this year’s programme, a modest masterpiece of planning. There were echoes and parallels, with items offset, matched, and balanced; and the many interlocking literary, musical, and intellectual themes knocked against and enhanced one another. Some the audience will have spotted these; others possibly remained blissfully unaware.
In 2014, Worcester grieved over the First World War, most notably with a commission from the Dresden-born, English-based composer Torsten Rasch — in which British, German, and Austrian texts embraced one another as tellingly as in the reconciliatory last Wilfred Owen poem of Britten’s War Requiem. Hereford gathered together the 2015 anniversaries: Runnymede, Agincourt, Waterloo, and more.
Here in 2017, Nardone revisited the Russia of a century ago, with Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony, The Year 1917 — in memory of Lenin, and one of Shostakovich’s powerful, though self-preservative, nods to the Revolution and Soviet dream — “The Dawn of Humanity” (as were Symphonies Nos. 2, 3, 4, 7, and 11). Adrian Partington’s versatility was apparent in every phrase, every crescendo, every moment of virtual secrecy, and every build-up. It made a hefty, perhaps curious, follow-up to Mozart’s stupendous “Great” C-minor Mass. Partington remains the most experienced and — given his range of other senior appointments — the “dean” of the three cathedral conductors. This reminds me that a visit to the Three Deans’ Bowls match, keenly contested, is always a must at the Three Choirs these days.
It was Partington who, in 2010, far-sightedly founded the Three Choirs Festival Youth Chorus, an ensemble of older teenagers and young 20-somethings whose emerging finesse, evident even from the outset, makes them a highlight of today’s festival. They sing their souls out; and their well-coaxed musical intelligence beams out.
To display the talents of the principal youth content, the three cathedral choirs of boys and men (in Worcester’s case, girls also), Nardone cleverly juxtaposed Purcell’s 22 November celebration “Hail! bright Cecilia” (1692) with Handel’s Dryden-based Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day (1739), written three years before Messiah. Breakneck pace obtained here, too. Composed in nine days and (one gathers) partly poached from the German composer Gottlieb Muffat, it makes one urge that his father, Georg Muffat (1653-1704), a pupil of Lully, is a scintillating and under-represented composer really worth investigating.
The boys’ performance under Nardone seemed a muted, even under par, for the Purcell, which needs high-definition. But it was much sparkier for the Handel, who though German, positioned himself (I can never work out quite how) as the stylistic heir to Purcell, who died at only 36.
Nardone’s opening evening, Tippett’s A Child of our Time — about the Jewish boy whose attack at Paris’s German embassy launched Hitler’s deadly Kristallnacht — was in the best Three Choirs tradition. When Nardone — a former Paisley Abbey chorister, who was later honed running the music at Croydon Minster and Chelmsford Cathedral — first conducted at a Three Choirs, there were some whispers of doubt. But the same was true of the cathedral organists Atkins, Sumsion, and Sanders when they first raised the baton. Thankfully, they are now silenced. Nardone, already successful in 2014, takes his place as a fine member of the organ-loft trio, and here as leader of the team.
Hugh Blair, “Worcester’s (not quite) Forgotten Organist”, died in 1932. He conducted the première of Elgar’s The Black Knight, was the dedicatee of Elgar’s Organ Sonata, an organist of no mean mettle, and the composer, too, of, among other things, a suite for organ (Milton), whose con moto movement was heard, as well as his meaty Evening Canticles in B minor. Nardone’s own Preces and Responses also took their place.
At the same evensong, William Lloyd Webber’s anthem “The Church with Joy Acclaims her Lord” was joyously given. Lloyd Webber’s work of undeniable genius, however, is his orchestral tone poem Aurora, evoking the ascent of the Roman goddess of the dawn: a work of scrumptious beauty. The Philharmonia performed it with exquisite delicacy, and evoked wonderment. Why do we not hear this work every day?
This, under one of the Philharmonia’s Orchestra’s favoured young conductors, Jérémie Rhorer, preceded some big noises and rapturous sentiment: Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s Third (“Organ”) Symphony — surprisingly rarely heard together, perhaps because, despite the awesome key of C minor, it can feel like too much of a chocolate éclair.
Lloyd Webber was to have been prefaced by an interview with his younger son, the cellist and conductor Julian Lloyd Webber, but his train was delayed. Enter Julian’s elder brother Sir Andrew, here for the evensong and evening concert, who gamely “understudied” to provide a lively and probing conversation with Nardone. When Julian arrived, we had a real bonus: two Lloyd Webbers instead of one. Needless to say, it was revealing. Their father was a great figure in the 1950s and ’60s, both as a composer and an academic administrator (work in which Julian has now followed him, in Birmingham).
Rasch’s A Welsh Night, newly orchestrated, centres on the poet Alun Lewis (1915-44), surviving one world war only to perish in a second in Burma. It confirmed how deeply and impressively Rasch is immersed in British poetry, as well as that of his homeland. After the massive success of Mein Herz Brennt, his astonishing vocal work based on German pop music, and likened on Radio 3 by Rob Cowan to a modern Mahler symphony, his music’s adoption by the leading publishers Faber Music comes as no surprise. Rasch has reached the very top layer internationally among composers, and is almost as much a Three Choirs fixture now as the Philharmonia, who, thanks not least to Paul Hedley, the festival’s first full-time administrative boss, and its chairman Bernard Day, hold an ongoing residency at the Three Choirs. If anything guarantees a seriously front-rank festival, at all three venues, these world-class performers do.
No English programme here: Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, for 23 solo strings, a lament for the Second Weltkrieg and destruction of his beloved Munich, with its funereal Beethoven culmination, speaks of loss in a way no other work does; and Leoš Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass, rooted in the old Czech liturgy of the country savaged by Hitler, looks back too. Frank Beermann, formerly Generalmusikdirector at industrial Chemnitz (Karl-Marx-Stadt), itself pummelled by the RAF, conducted with authority and insight.
If anything confirmed the finesse of the Philharmonia, it was Jonathan Dove’s pure and enchanting There Was a Child, an inspired setting of multitudinous poems and fragments, which is suffused with a child’s wonder, worthy of William Blake, or Walter de la Mare (here included). A series of polished jewels, it needs brilliant conducting and an exquisite touch. Partington once again brought both.
Hedley, himself a choral conductor of note, was responsible, with Anthony Boden, for a handsome new publication: The Three Choirs Festival: A history, issued this summer by The Boydell Press (Boydell & Brewer), which brings the whole festival story up to date (as far as the tercentenary). Anthony Boden, biographer of Parry, and Thomas Tomkins (Worcester’s organist up to the Civil War), and Editor of Ivor Gurney letters and W. H. Harvey poems), has examined in fresh detail the initial years (early 18th century) years, Hedley’s section spanning the last three decades is a positive goldmine, and just a beautifully written.
The publication of Life After Tragedy: Essays on faith and the First World War evoked by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, edited by the Precentor of Worcester Cathedral, Michael W. Brierley, and its Chaplain, Georgina A. Byrne, has performed a similar service for Studdert Kennedy, “Woodbine Willie”, amassing 12 essays that explore many aspects of this heroic wartime figure. Some half a dozen members of the Worcester Chapter have contributed, bringing duly admiring, but also profound, insights, into this stirring volume. Indeed, one essay by the Dean, Peter Atkinson, “Poets in Wartime: A Study of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy and Geoffrey Dearmer”, has to appeal to anyone with an interest in hymnology.
The book was highlighted by a thoughtful, well-mapped collection of talks on Kennedy pervading this year’s festival week. They were typical of the week’s flair and bustle, lent especial vivid, thanks to a revealing performance of Mendelssohn’s St Paul by the thrillingly energised Festival Chorus under Geraint Bowen; by visiting ensembles such as the choir of King’s College, Cambridge; and by “An English Farewell”, an astonishing coupling of Finzi’s Thomas Traherne cantata Dies Natalis, in which some (not I) found the young soloist Ed Lyon to be a little harsh and edgy, with Howells’s lament for his dead son, Hymnus Paradisi, which, without Vaughan Williams’s determined encouragement to Howells to conduct this “private document” (at Gloucester, in 1950), might never have seen the light of day.
The boy, Michael, born in 1925, was nine when in Gloucestershire he contracted spinal meningitis, dying just three days later. He was his father’s best friend, and Howells would never wholly recover from the loss. All that pent-up grief is in this psalmic and visionary work, and, in conducting it so ably, Peter Nardone summed up the week’s music as gloriously and perfectly as could be.