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Music review: Hereford’s Three Choirs

17 August 2018

Ethel Smyth headed the march of the women at Hereford’s Three Choirs, Roderic Dunnett reports

michael whitefoot

The young tenor Gwilym Bowen sings in the Monteverdi Vespers

The young tenor Gwilym Bowen sings in the Monteverdi Vespers

THE Three Choirs Festival serves up utterly memorable concerts. I think, for example, of Vladimir Ashkenazy’s conducting of the centenary revival in Gloucester in 2013 of an amazing Three Choirs commission, Sibelius’s Luonnotar; Peter Nardone’s Worcester 2014 commission from the German-born Torsten Rasch, A Foreign Field, setting English war poets; and, last year, Martyn Brabbins’s insightful reading of Elgar’s Gerontius, the Three Choirs’ calling card, at Worcester.

The full-throttle cathedral concerts are all the more notable since the Philharmonia Orchestra assumed its Three Choirs residency. At Hereford this summer, compositions by Parry, Ethel Smyth, Elgar, Bruckner, and the younger Boulanger sister, the ill-fated Lili, were featured. But visiting choirs, incisive vocal recitals, and chamber-music commissions also fill out the picture of ongoing musical excellence.

Take, for instance, the Shire Hall, Hereford, to which Elgar premières deemed too racy for a cathedral used to be banished. Here, the Herefordshire Youth Choir and Ensemble included Gavin Bryars’s mesmerising Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. The Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir capped this with a spirited reading under Peter Nardone of Cecilia McDowall’s Stabat Mater, an approachable and yet challenging setting, perfectly fitted to the occasion.

Baptistry, only four minutes long but magnetising, was by the acclaimed and productive Hannah Kendall: jazzy, zestful, and inspired by a 1975 artwork by the now octogenarian African-American abstractionist Sam Gilliam. It “conjures a sense of celebration, newness, regeneration, and growth”. Huw Watkins’s Schumann-inspired Four Fables, with clarinet added, proved a perfectly worthy, quite pithy commission, prefacing Messiaen’s deeply religious Quartet for the End of Time, performed by the clarinet-augmented Gould Trio.

James Gilchrist majored on Jonathan Dove’s Under Alter’d Skies, a beautiful cycle of seven exquisite Tennyson poems. The choir Tenebrae, under Nigel Short, went wandering with Judith Bingham’s A Walk with Ivor Gurney, with an enchanting mezzo-soprano solo (a disc with its dedicatee, Dame Sarah Connolly, is about to emerge from Signum Records as SIG CD 557). Gurney’s anthem “Since I believe in God the Father Almighty” was a revelation. Are choirmasters aware of this masterpiece?

Rasch’s A Foreign Field: Psalm, originally designed for his 2014 Worcester commission, registers most where he ventures into dissonance; for Rasch has a rare gift of making dissonance sound like consonance, wholly logical. “Lord, let me know mine end”, the last of Parry’s Songs of Farewell, featured on many choirs’ celebratory programmes last year. Alas, how one ached for Maurice Greene’s unsurpassed setting; for I found the Parry performances here a little bald. They produced tears from some — but not, sadly, from me. Schoenberg, amazingly, fared better (Friede auf Erden).

Evensong is naturally central to the festival. Hereford’s Peter Dyke, a national doyen of the organ loft, conjured a fresh arrangement of Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony (the Allegro con fuoco finale). What a treat it was, con fuoco indeed, the lowest pedal pipes abutting the side aisle booming in one’s ears and up one’s nostrils.

We heard music by William Mathias (much missed), Alan Gray (of Trinity College, Cambridge, 1855-1935); W. H. Harris; Set me as a seal, commissioned from Kerensa Briggs, a former member of Gloucester Cathedral’s Youth Choir; Roy Massey, mentor to many; Thomas Tunnard (1918-2012), Massey’s predecessor at Birmingham Cathedral; and — all in one evening — Judith Weir, Ina Boyle (1889-1967), and Rachel Laurin, part of this year’s emphasis on women composers.

michael whitefootThe Hong Kong-born conductor Elim Chan conducts the Philharmonia in Holst’s The Planets in a non-vocal concert

There were some dozen organ recitals and talks, at venues including Belmont Abbey and Leominster Priory, featuring composers such as Oortmerssen (1950-2015), Escaich, Ligeti, and Percy Whitlock (1903-46): the programme included a touching rare picture of the last of these as a young man. But it was Olivier Latry’s cathedral recital — including improvisation, and breathtaking as usual — that drew enthusiasts from around the country. The organiste titulaire of Notre-Dame inspires a vast international following. It was clever to enlist him again.

The centenary of women’s suffrage set the context for the opening concert: John Ireland’s These Things Shall Be made a glowing start to the significant and taxing input by this year’s festival’s Artistic Director, Geraint Bowen. By his undiminished warmth and generous personality, he coaxes sublime performances from the massed choir, intelligently responsive and expressive. Thus he made a triumph of the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth (the “th”, she insisted, as in “Smith”, not in “scythe”). The work was admired by royalty and received its première by the Royal Choral Society in January 1893.

Smyth was right to judge the Gloria — in her design, as in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, placed last — “the most tempestuous and . . . best number of all”. But the work as a whole is a wonder. Its debt to Beethoven, whose Missa Solemnis is in the same key, is patent. But Smyth does not mimic: a master of repeated phrases, dynamic variation, emotional strengths, she doggedly ploughs her own furrow. The chorus men set the atmosphere, launching the Kyrie Eleison with an atmospheric pianissimo.

A violin solo was melting: the Philharmonia’s superlative Hungarian-German joint concert master, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, has the sweetest of tones. The loveliest moments were given to the mezzo, Madeleine Shaw: the Sanctus sounded wholly original, not a blasting. The end of the Agnus Dei was drawn out daringly by the courageous Bowen. How it worked! Smyth even engineers a Bach stretto, a kind of emotional seizure. This stupendous Mass should be picked up by every large choral society in Britain. It is an edge-of-seat achievement and huge fun to sing.

Elgar’s King Olaf, setting excerpts from a beefy narrative poem by Longfellow (1807-82), was a predictable highlight under Sir Andrew Davis, who had so mastered this unfamiliar score as to be able to mouth the words to the chorus. A mature soprano, Judith Howarth, as Olaf’s adopted and then discarded young love object, was terrific; David Shipley proved a bass of magnificent presence and resonance. Andrew Staples nobly characterised the title part. By introducing Christianity to the Norse lands, I suppose, Olaf Tryggvason did everyone a favour, although today we may well think his methods — with halberd, axe, and broadsword — unchristian. In reality, he was a bit of a monster.

Tuesday upstaged even the Elgar. Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, with the three cathedral choirs under Bowen, was, for me, the treasure of the week. The young baritone, Henry Neill, is a find. The Spanish-born mezzo Lorena Paz Nieto, with the soprano Augusta Hebbert (e.g. duetting in “Nigra sum” and “Pulchra es”, both from the Song of Songs), shaped this pioneering masterpiece most pleasingly.

The brothers Gwilym and Ruairi Bowen were ravishingly paired, as in “Duo Seraphim”; and Ruairi, the younger, also excelled solo (“Surge amica mea, surge et veni”). The choirboys gave their all, conjured by Bowen père into an astonishing expressiveness, which the choirmen shared. Brecon Baroque and their sackbut players also contributed to this triumph.

I was sad to miss (owing to a significant gathering elsewhere) Peter Nardone’s conducting of Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, and even more Bruckner’s Te Deum, not included since 1967. It was Nardone who helped the Parry bandwagon along, nursing “Hear my words” from the three cathedral choirs at Thursday’s evensong.

Sir Andrew Davis, a staunch festival supporter, was at the helm again for the Parry centenary evening. Given the high expectations, I found this a bit of a squib. Blest Pair of Sirens, maybe under-rehearsed, felt boxy and tedious. Other choirs have fared better. Parry’s Symphony no. 5 (all five are marvellous) jumped through the hoops; little more.

Invocation to Music, Parry’s 1894-95 oratorio, which his biographer Professor Jeremy Dibble described to me as “top-drawer Parry” (I agree), somehow didn’t do the stuff. The text, by Robert Bridges, came over as sub-Dryden Victoriana, mainly because the chorus pumped it all out line by line: one prayed for enjambement. David Stout, the bass soloist, was superb at every turn. Yet Sir Andrew did evoke some memorable moments. His masterly command of balances, and intimate leads to woodwind, or cellos and basses, for instance; or marvellous Mahlerian anticipations, and some beautifully judged, poised soloist accompaniments. Yet the work, a bit noisy, failed to have the impact that it should.

Brahms’s Requiem yielded a perfect and poignant closure to the week. Amid the choir’s frequent excellence and passion — not least a fabulous reading of Vaughan Williams’s Whitman setting Towards the Unknown Region — there was perhaps just a hint of tiredness. Yet who could not treasure Elizabeth Watts’s “Ihr habt nun traurigkeit”, soaring as a lark ascending, or Matthew Brook’s stalwart “Herr, lehre doch mich”? The choir’s reiterations of “selig” (“blessed”) were bracing; and “All flesh is as grass” thundered.

The other fantastic evening was thanks to Partington. We had already enjoyed Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, another centenary performance, from the National Youth Choir of Wales. Partington now reigned over Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The test for the orchestra is how to manage that light staccato launch to the central “Expectans expectavi”. The evolution through solo wind is as delicate as Mozart’s Serenade, or Britten’s Missa Brevis. The Philharmonia brass, en masse, exploded for the final 150th Psalm. But Partington’s crisp, precise, economical, and, to me, Boulez-like beat was crucial to this resounding success.

So, too, in Walton’s Viola Concerto, which featured the prizewinning young Timothy Ridout, whose warm and generous personality, and positive wonder at the music, oozed through every note. He is clearly going places. Boston and New York call.

Yet the climax to this concert was Du fond de l’abîme (Out of the Deep) by Lili (Marie-Juliette Olga) Boulanger, from a musical family and the first female winner of France’s gilt-edged Prix de Rome, who died in 1918, aged just 24.

This choral masterpiece showed what a loss she was to 20th-century music. Her rich and original harmonies (compare French contemporaries such as Florent Schmitt), the massive contrasts she devises, spinning Psalm 130 into a 25-minute extravaganza, showed astonishing originality. Partington drew a terrific showing from the potentially taxed chorus. Two shorter works, D’un soir triste and the spicy scherzo D’un matin de printemps, composed just before her death, were included by the Trio Dali, led by the brilliant violinist Jack Liebeck, at the week’s opening. She and her sister Nadia orchestrated both pieces — an idea for concert-planners.

It would be ungracious not to mention the superbly laid-out programme book, and the notes, especially by Gwilym Bowen and Richard Bratby, that enhanced audiences’ experience. Bratby, noting of Lili that she “knew she was terminally ill, and was living on borrowed time”, sums up D’un soir triste as “darker and more sombre in mood: a sort of muted cortège”.

A shadow fell on the final day, when the death was announced, aged 88, of Dr Donald Hunt, organist of Worcester Cathedral from 1976 to 1996, and later head of the Elgar School of Music. Not just at the Three Choirs, but at Leeds (1958-75), Hunt, forward-looking and frequently innovative, induced choristers and performers to sit up and take notice. He was an energiser, an inspirer, a first-rate musician, hospitable and relaxed when off-piste. The triumvirate of Hunt, Massey, and John Sanders presided over a high period in the festival’s history. A treble and later assistant organist at Gloucester under Herbert Sumsion (Hunt wrote a biography of S. S. Wesley, who was organist at Gloucester), he is mourned by his choristers from across the decades.

The performance of the Brahms Requiem was dedicated gratefully to his memory.

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