THE 2019 Three Choirs Festival opened and concluded its main evening concerts at Gloucester with a bang and a wallop.
Standards have reached a new peak thanks to the Philharmonia Orchestra’s annual residency. This was obvious when the artistic director, Adrian Partington, who took the lead in the week’s conducting, delivered a sensational reading of Berlioz’s semi-opera (or légende héroique) The Damnation of Faust. Partington also rounded off the week with a shattering Beethoven’s Ninth, in which not just the meteoric final “Ode to Joy”, thrillingly delivered by the massed Festival Chorus, shone, but also the Adagio, thanks to a masterly interpretation, shrewdly managed.
The Berlioz challenges both chorus (here on top form) and soloists. An amusingly selective medley after Goethe, it depicts a gloomy, detached Faust figure (the tenor Peter Hoare, soaring to dizzying heights) beset by unsuccessfully benign influences, and then obsessed by his muse, Marguerite (Susan Bickley), whom he disastrously and fatally abandons.
Faust’s counterpart is the wheedling and malign Mephistopheles (Christopher Purves), who places Faust’s soul in peril and ultimately claims him. Partington delivered an excitingly driven massive-scale performance, not least because the choir excelled — as it did all week — and because Hoare and Purves contrived a dazzling interplay between the two main characters. The orchestral interludes were striking and atmospheric.
Berlioz’s score, here blaring, there subtle, is immensely demanding, potentially a nightmare. Partington, drawing on his extensive experience, was its master, pacing it, managing astutely quite problematic balances, and maintaining his command control of the vast chorus. A superlative performance emerged.
STANFORD’s Psalm 150 and Elgar’s Te Deum were centrepieces of the opening service, accompanied — in a new departure — by a capable young ensemble from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff.
Two outstanding events preceded it, however. The semi-(slightly) staged drama The Burning Boy, based on an idea by the poet Charles Causley, proved gripping, less because of the adult soloists (the best was Paul Carey Jones as Elisha) than because of the composer Stephen McNeff’s skilful use of his seven-strong ensemble. Instrumental delicacy and invention produced captivating subtle textures. On the lines of Britten’s Church Parables, it was an undoubted masterpiece. Three young soloists (“Harvesters”) shone: Johanna Harrison, Charlotte Levesley, and Cassian Pichler-Roca. It was no surprise to that find that the last, with gorgeous low timbres, intelligence, and musicianship, was joint winner of BBC Radio 2’s 2018 Young Choristers of the Year.
James MacMillan’s 60th birthday was celebrated at a recorded evensong, embracing four of his works: three anthems and an Evening Service. Already, at Tewkesbury Abbey, we heard his deeply expressive setting Seven Last Words from the Cross. The choir of Merton College, Oxford, under the inspiring conductor Benjamin Nicholas, earlier introduced MacMillan’s Miserere, original even for MacMillan, and beautifully conceived and hauntingly sung. John Scott Whiteley thoughtfully included two MacMillan works, one a première, in his accomplished Monday organ recital.
Two prime visiting conductors were invited to take the helm. After Edward Gardner’s searing rendition of Verdi’s Requiem, Martyn Brabbins oversaw the annual orchestral concert. Walton’s First Symphony received an appropriately vigorous reading, but it was Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été that gripped the imagination, with its six beautifully chiselled texts by Théophile Gautier, a key figure in 19th-century French literature. Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) made an enchanting soloist.
Hereford’s Geraint Bowen took the helm for a spirited reading of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, notable — or reprehensible — for Mendelssohn’s (rarely heard) reworking of the score, which dismayed some pundits. The Three Choirs Chorus, in this often shattering biblical essay, again came up to the mark, relishing the omnipresent plagues of frogs, flies, lice, locusts, etc.
Bowen triumphed again, on the penultimate night, presiding over an electrifying performance of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony. Its text, of course, is judiciously selected, energetic passages from Walt Whitman, whose bicentenary fell this year. Among the many virtues here were Bowen’s perceptive and relishable pacings, some excitingly precise accelerandi, the oboe (and tuba) parts, and those passages where Whitman — maybe surprisingly — invokes deity. The dazzlingly beautiful duet (Katherine Broderick and Roderick Williams) unveils the symphony’s most breathtaking moment, “Bathe me O God in thee”. It was gratifying how the spirit of Ravel or Debussy was allowed occasionally to breathe through this uplifting performance.
SAMUEL HUDSON, newly appointed Organist of Worcester Cathedral, engaged with Sir Karl Jenkins’s widely popular cantata The Armed Man. The text is quite disparate, but certainly absorbing. The second item, a call to Allah, becomes engagingly atmospheric, and the ensuing Kyrie likewise. Outbursts of drumming (“Dance in the air, merge”) scintillated; trumpets — especially for the Dryden passage intermittently blazed. A section marked “Torches” (from the sixth-century Mahabharatra), depicting fire enveloping fleeing animals, is tragically depicted, the Agnus Dei enriched by a solo cello, and the Pacifist finale (“Ring out the thousand wars of old”) is compelling. Exit the armed man. Hudson marshalled his forces admirably and drew from the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir — a superb, diligent young ensemble — some excellently poised and thoughtful singing.
Partington was again to the fore, conducting with sensitivity and periodic panache a newly commissioned Christmas Oratorio by the ever-popular Bob Chilcott, which is due to be aired by the BBC in December. Not surprisingly, this première, given such a vivid performance, proved a palpable success. Several solo parts figure, especially the Evangelist (narrator) — sung by the tenor Nick Pritchard, who provided an inspired delivery of the unaccompanied or delicately orchestrated Gospel narrative. The outcome was pleasing overall: Chilcott’s recitative is not Bachian, and yet is both fluent and varied — and utterly new.
michael whitefootEdward Gardner, a former Gloucester Cathedral chorister, conducts Verdi’s Requiem at the Three Choirs
Four congregational hymns are fitted in to his own fresh descanted tunes; the use particularly of harp (and flute) is quite magical, lending warm colour to the mezzo soloist (Dame Sarah Connolly), while the bass (Neal Davies) intones Chilcott’s marvellously expressive treatment of the Nunc Dimittis. “Where is the babe but lately sprung? Lies he the lily-banks among” (Herrick) gives some idea of the enchanting text. The chorus here was the three cathedral choirs, adults and boys, delivering fine enunciation and a pretty fabulous unified sound. Chilcott’s St John Passion (Wells, 2013) evidenced how he can thrive in a larger format. The four hymns are an interruption, though apt for Christmas. The work, cheerfully volatile, should serve enthusiastic choirs well in the future.
Another visiting choir, Ex Cathedra, offered an insightful performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Three or four sections are audibly thunderous, but the composer restrains this feverish temperature, matching the text by a series of tender, deeply touching passages. A sequence of perceptive solos from choir members, notably a fabulous (loud) tenor soloist in the Nunc Dimittis, plus an expressive mezzo in The Great Doxology (“Glory to God in the highest”) were beautiful and bewitching.}
THE Three Choirs Festival is patently one of the supreme events in the English musical calendar. In 2019, it is generally well-nigh faultless. The full week fields a flood of events throughout the day. English song plays a significant part. James Gilchrist launched in with an accomplished and meaningful performance of Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, a profound four-part Housman cycle by Ian Venables, beautifully wrought, emotionally probing, and including “O who is that young sinner”, possibly the only setting of this barely concealed outcry against the homosexual oppression of his day.
Roderick Williams, in a packed recital at Cheltenham College, included a host of lesser-known British composers, but also again Housman (“Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour . . .”), by Elaine Hugh-Jones, and a new, brilliantly executed Yeats setting by Ian Venables. A highlight was Somervell’s song cycle from Tennyson’s Maud. It is one of the most delightful and touching works by this composer of the English musical renaissance, and was enticingly performed.
Not English but, again, American poetry emerged ecstatically (under Partington) in a Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter, a setting of four enraptured passages from Whitman. All feature ecstatic invocations of a trumpeter, but in this early, long-suppressed work, suggestions of Holst’s Wagner enthusiasm can be heard, as well as occasional anticipations of The Planets.
Holst was fascinated by oriental music: witness his Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (“praise and knowledge”), the vast collection of material in Sanskrit dating from around 1500-100 BC — among the earliest Indo-European texts. This year’s festival, in a new departure, included, fascinatingly, several events exploring such aspects of (particularly) Hindu music. The expert playing of Sri M. Balachandar (wielding a marvellously expressive double-ended drum) and Balu Raguraman (violin, held vertically) was, unsurprisingly, mesmerising. Two lectures on the Vedas were richly informative.
The Holst works, including the Rig Veda hymns, were matched by a related late-night recital by the Oriel Singers, conducted by Ben Sawyer. Two eminent chanters, masters of Indian repertoire, brought magnificently alive fragments of the Upanishads. The festival’s chief executive, Alexis Paterson, who initiated this immensely revealing exploration, writes: “I thought carefully about the wisdom of placing the sacred texts of another faith into this hallowed Christian setting: as far as I know it will be the first time the Vedas have had such a setting. I hope you’ll agree that the texts selected by tonight’s chanters celebrate our common ground . . . our humility and awe in the face of creation’s complexity.”
JOHN JOUBERT died in January, aged 91, before he could hear a bristling performance of his An English Requiem. Adrian Partington, who conducted the première in 2010, revived it here and derived from its psalmic texts repeated excellence from choir and orchestra alike. Brahms’s Requiem was, textually, a key influence. Joubert has the wisdom to repeat text, to effect. His mastery of orchestration showed: the Philharmonia went to town.
The start is haunting and desolate, taken here at a daringly paced adagio; the section “Judgement” is aptly forceful. “Faith” embraced an exciting two-stage fugue. Bass clarinet, piccolo, oboe, horn, brass, and solo violin were all used to good effect. The idiom is original, quite knotty, and somewhat challenging. Several soprano solos (April Fredrick), especially “My heart is pierced within me. . .”, partly from Lamentations, were pure and refined. The baritone (Neal Davies) intoned “Lord, let me know mine end” (compare Brahms) with huge intensity, offset by an expressive solo horn.
One new arrival in the daily choral evensongs was an introit freshly composed by James Speakman, winner of the Sanders Society competition (established in memory of Gloucester’s cherished late organist). Setting an extract from Psalm 88, it begins full-bloodedly, subsides almost surprisingly, and designates a quite dramatic second half for men’s voices moving swiftly beneath an atmospheric soprano line.
On the last day, Carl Davis, another popularist but vastly skilled composer, provided a work commemorating — indeed enacting — the legendary story of the Kindertransport: the saving (in 1938-39) of countless children from Nazi Germany before it was too late. Here, as with Chilcott, emphasis resides in spoken narrative. But the text (by Hiawyn Oram) is so appositely contrived, much movingly spoken by young performers, graphically evoking the murderous Kristallnacht, the difficulty and heartbreak of getting listed to leave, and the bewildered delight on arriving safely in England, the work evokes great sympathy.
Davis’s score, designed for younger performers, is relatively straightforward: it ploughs no territory as McNeff did so cleverly in The Burning Boy. But the whole succeeds: desperation blossoms into hope.
And hope is what Partington’s conclusion, Beethoven’s brazen “Ode to Joy”, brought. What a fiery thrill that was, the choir utterly attentive and responsive, soloists on their toes and the orchestra brazen and stunning. Could one end a Three Choirs week more rapturously, or more explosively?