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2021 Southern Cathedrals Festival

13 August 2021

Fine singing from men, boys, and girls, says Roderic Dunnett


Winchester Cathedral, the host of this year’s Southern Cathedrals Festival

Winchester Cathedral, the host of this year’s Southern Cathedrals Festival

THE Southern Cathedrals Festival brings together the three cathedral choirs of Chichester, Salisbury, and Winchester. It was founded (after a test run) in 1905, when the pioneering organists were names that are today unfamiliar: Frederick Crowe, Charles South, and William Prendergast. Despite suspension at times, the festival has now made 70 appearances. It usually covers five days; but this year’s was just part of a weekend (Friday, plus two services on Saturday by the triple massed forces).

Today’s directors of music are Andrew Lumsden (Winchester), David Halls (Salisbury), and Charles Harrison (Chichester). This 2021 festival was put on, carefully distanced, at Winchester, and its well-conceived programme appropriately laid special emphasis on isolation, exile, and the hope for an end to both. Music of compelling beauty dominated, all performed with the wealth of experience which the cathedral tradition has brought to younger and older choir members alike.

Professionalism underlies all three cathedral choirs. The creation of a girls’ component, an exciting and highly influential innovation, was in fact initiated by Richard Seal at Salisbury in October 1991, on the cathedral’s 900th anniversary. Thence it was gradually taken up more widely. Halls was Seal’s assistant organist at the time. There is an enjoyable and revealing interview with Seal, now 85, one of several featured on YouTube as an adjunct to the festival.

Keeping the boys’ and girls’ units separate, and bringing them together only for big occasions, has become the norm, thus offering each the opportunity to shine in their own right. Hence we had an alternation at this July festival not just of the three cathedral choirs, but of their boys and girls, too (with the men). Sadly, the Friday concert was scarcely given by massed forces: Covid had made rehearsing together almost impossible.

This 50-minute event, seen online, was amiably hosted by Aled Jones. His contributions were sorely abbreviated for lack of time, but he was excellent at pointing up the serious contemporary relevance of the programme. With its intermittent themes of exile and isolation (identifiable with lockdown, isolation and distancing), it showcased to excellent effect each of the choirs.

Salisbury was the first girls’ choir to take the stage, in a beautifully sensitive and expert rendering of Parry’s Henry Vaughan setting “My Soul, There Is A Country”, from his Songs of Farewell, largely completed by May 1916, just before pupils of his would perish on the Somme — hence the pathos in this work, revealing the composer’s desolation; he himself died in the October before the Armistice.

Winchester’s girls showed their mettle with the exquisite text “My Beloved Spake” from the Song of Songs, most famously set by Purcell, but here heard in Patrick Hadley’s unusually forthright three-minute treatment with quite loud accompaniment. Hadley was for four decades a music lecturer and tutor at Cambridge.

Chichester fielded its dedicated, often quite young, boys. One treat was to hear them in “O How Amiable Are Thy Dwellings” by their cathedral’s great, but notoriously drunken and unruly, Renaissance-period organist, Thomas Weelkes: nearly three minutes of heavenly counterpoint.

This is not a competition, and, at this vexed time, it would be gratuitous to compare or criticise the choirs, or any of the beautifully trained young voices. All participants did the British cathedral tradition proud. Here was talent galore. In the singing of men and children alike, there were thoughtfulness, sensitivity, empathy, intelligence, and impressive musicality.

From Salisbury, we heard some gorgeously phrased Palestrina: “Sicut cervus” (“As the deer longs for the springs of water, so my soul longs for you, O God”); a touching, very beautiful, and individual tenor solo uplifted Bairstow’s rarely heard “I Sat Down Under His Shadow” (another text from the Song of Songs), Salisbury again looking spendid in their (pine green? jade? teal?) cassocks. A Prayer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rather wisely conceived by Philip Moore, was intoned by Chichester, who also, directed by Charles Harrison, sang an affecting anthem, “There is a Stream”, by the latterly prolific Robert James Ashfield (1911-2006), organist of Southwell and then of Rochester.

Two pieces stood out radiantly, however, for me. One, sung by the Salisbury girls, was Alec Roth’s setting of stanzas from George Herbert’s profoundly optimistic poem “The Flower” (“How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean Are thy returns!”), exile offset by renewed hope being prime themes of this consistently beautiful, instructive, and absorbing concert.

The most enchanting item of all was at the very start, when Lumsden conducted the touching “How Shall We Sing in a Strange Land?”, by Joseph Twist. In this lamenting poem of exile taken from Psalm 137, that ultimate evocation of deprivation, were eight minutes of incomparable beauty, based (like Roth’s anthem) on the simplest patterns, rising and inverting. It featured one of the finest boy soloists I have heard. If anything really reached the solar plexus, this did.

Just two criticisms. I have long held that for a full festival rather than a “Music Meeting”, as the famous Three Choirs Festival originally was, a more substantial programme is now expected: not merely a presentation of shortish items from the choirs’ normal evensong repertoire. It could be weightier; and the revival of lost larger-scale repertoire might become an aim for future, less difficult years.

Second, during the attractive TV presentation, given the needs of older viewers and poetry of the quality of Owen, Herbert, and the Song of Songs, it might perhaps have been an advantage, not a distraction, to have the words on screen, even though the enunciation of all the choirs was near-impeccable.

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