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Music: Worcester Three Choirs Festival 2021

by
27 August 2021

Obstacles overcome, it was a heroic festival, says Roderic Dunnett

@michaelwhitefoot

Samuel Hudson, conductor, acknowledges applause after Guy Johnstone’s performance of Herbert Howells’s Cello Concerto at the Three Choirs

Samuel Hudson, conductor, acknowledges applause after Guy Johnstone’s performance of Herbert Howells’s Cello Concerto at the Three Choirs

DISASTER befell the 2020 Worcester Three Choirs Festival. Only just in time was it possible to confirm 2021’s resplendent week of events.

Aptly, the Festival’s Artistic Director, Samuel Hudson, launched in with Elgar. He had included in Saturday’s Opening Service a bracing anthem, God be Merciful, by another Worcester composer, Ian Venables, whose inspired Requiem setting has now been recorded (SOMM CD 0618). Elgar’s amusingly hybrid medley The Music Makers, preceded by Beethoven’s mesmerising adagio “Meerestille” (“Calm Sea”), galvanised Hudson’s opening cathedral concert.

Other choirs visited. The Gabrieli Consort brought thrilling period-instrument precision to Purcell’s dramatically befuddled and yet enchanting King Arthur. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen had also featured at Worcester recently, in a teasing staging by the director Thomas Guthrie.

Hereford’s Geraint Bowen yielded up a beautifully paced and phrased treatment of Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, to which the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir, launched in 2010 by Adrian Partington, brought — as it has since its inception — uniformly beautiful tone, immaculate entries, insight into text, eloquent dynamics, and intricate empathy with the words, plus great tenderness (offset by vivid explosions). It capitalised intelligently on Worcester’s capacious acoustic.

The Sea Sketches, by the Welsh composer Grace Williams (1906-77), were just as impressive. You might think that Britten pinched from this fabulously evocative score (“High Wind”, “Breakers”, “Calm Sea in Summer”, etc.), composed in 1944 — were it not that Williams’s exploratory work was not heard until 1947, two years after Peter Grimes appeared; so perhaps any influence was the other way round. The spectacular stillness throughout the slow movement, its subtlety indebted to the Philharmonia’s desks, proved one of the week’s highlights.

Edifying lectures explored the friendshipo between Elgar and Sir Ivor Atkins, Worcester’s organist for 53 years, and included Professor Jeremy Dibble’s typically astute insights into the composer Delius (whose 160th birthday falls next January). One for me stood out: the talk by the music critic and scholar Michael White on Walton, whose oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast was originally programmed. White was a loyal and sympathetic friend of Walton’s widow. This close connection lent his lecture a captivating intimacy, as well as much authentic detail, within a lucid and beautifully thought-out text. Superb.

Hudson’s original programme, indeed suffered a few salient losses (I believe Dvorák’s American contemporary Horatio Parker was one). Yet much survived. Take the staggeringly commanding (often joyously flamboyant) organ virtuoso David Briggs, now based in the United States. Briggs’s original compositions, amazing improvisations, and dazzling transcriptions of orchestral works (Mahler especially) have proved an international triumph. We were treated to his new translation of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, entrancingly registered. How does he do it, one wonders.

The glories of the St Martin’s Church organ (with its six-bell Zimbelstern— a rotating wheel on which tinkling small bells are mounted) were revealed by three young interpreters promoted by the Royal College of Organists. The repertoire included pieces by Hindemith, Jehan Alain (1911-40), who was killed in the month that France fell; and (played by Daniel Mathieson) the massive Liszt-inspired Sonata on the 94th Psalm by Brahms’s contemporary Julius Reubke (1834-58), whom tuberculosis cruelly stole at the age of only 24.

Echoing Paul Ellison’s lecture “Black Musicians of the Nineteenth Century”, came rewarding glimpses of Elgar’s protégé Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who first appeared at the Three Choirs in 1898. His Clarinet Quintet stood up easily alongside Bliss’s admired work in the same genre, while, during Coleridge-Taylor’s Solemn Prelude, one might almost have thought that it was Elgar.

David Hill, veteran of Winchester, Bournemouth, Cambridge, the BBC Singers, and now the Bach Choir, followed up with one of the two undeniably fresh oratorio-sized works of the week: the newly commissioned 43-minute poem cycle The World Imagined, by Gabriel Jackson.

Some sage observers expressed marginal hesitation, lest Jackson — who patently tops the ladder among our choral composers — might not fare quite so well working on a large canvas. But that view has been countered: by his full-length Mass and unforgettable Passion setting — as distinctive as Arvo Pärt’s — both composed for Merton College, Oxford; and by absorbing and memorable settings of the Requiem and Stabat Mater.

Approaching 60, Jackson is widely respected for his attentive and adventurous text settings: 123 choral pieces appear on gabrieljackson.london/works. He christened this new commission The World Imagined, and its atmosphere is just like that. Often Jackson’s titles intrigue: “Prayer of King Henry VI”, “Thomas, Jewel of Canterbury”, “Orbis patrator optime” (the texts 15th, 14th, and 16th century); or his vibrant A Vision of Aeroplanes.

I am uneasy about large choral works that set their texts straight through (Bach, Elgar, or S. S. Wesley revealingly mulled over a single word). But Jackson’s choice of poetry proved not just revealing, but at best electrifying. So, too, did his ever-shifting, often delicate, instrumentation — cleverly lucid, fine-lined, quite often scherzoid, indeed mischievous. Was the choral writing intermittently a bit subdued? Maybe intentionally. Or was it a matter of choir-orchestra balance?

And such words! Exquisite poetry from a Hispanic Talmud scholar; a forlorn (“solitary”) setting of Italy’s great poet Leopardi, expressively interpreted by a notably articulate young tenor (Nick Pritchard). Then followed some mysterious stanzas (“transforms into a grain of sand . . .on the blinding beach of the isle of death”) by the Estonian Doris Kareva (b. 1958); Whitman’s dazzling (and certainly repetitive) “O vision prophetic, stagger’d with weight of light!”; and, to conclude, Wallace Stevens (“We say that God and the imagination are one. . . How high that highest candle lights the dark”).

Jackson may not have consciously sought to mould together poems of interrelated imagery. Yet how instinctively he has succeeded. Light and space; sun and stars; sea and sand; vision, horizon, transformation, ascent — such subject-matter would not disgrace Donne, Herbert, or Vaughan. The World Imagined is a massive musical achievement.

@michaelwhitefootNjabulo Madlala sings baritone in the Three Choirs revival of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’s Odysseus

But Worcester capped the week with a huge surprise. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) can seem a backward-looking, more plain than colourful composer. Yet, in his Symphony No.2, he utterly refutes this view. Taking a lightly modern translation of Homer’s Odyssey, Gibbs makes the famous wandering narrative, with the entire Three Choirs Chorus in full flow, sizzle from beginning to end.

His magnificent and varied orchestration gained full vent from the Philharmonia, led by its marvellous soloist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay. The tale unfolds: temptation, as our hero flees the clutches of Calypso and hoary embrace of Circe; crisis, as he (and the sheep) outwit the man-eating giant Polyphemus; then resolution, as Ithaca’s king sees off the rabble (“suitors”) back home.

Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, no doubt, inspired it. “Heroic”, “mysterious”, “cavernous” — all surface in Gwilym Bowen’s searching note (alternating with many well-turned contributions by The Spectator’s Richard Bratby). Gibbs finds clever ways to express “doggerel” for the Cyclops, “gibberish” for the drunkards. Finally, once they are dispatched, there follows a wondrous duet for Odysseus (the fabulous, if slightly distanced, baritone Njabulo Madlala) and loyal Penelope (the soprano Ruby Hughes): a heavenly reunion.

Max Bruch, too, wrote a fine oratorio Odysseus. What Adrian Partington showed us here is that Armstrong Gibbs’s version is, if anything, livelier and better.

 

The 2022 Hereford Three Choirs Festival, including Dvorák’s Requiem and Dyson’s Quo Vadis, has just been announced. 3choirs.org

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