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Music review: Three Choirs Festival, in Gloucester

11 August 2023

Roderic Dunnett was in Gloucester for the Three Choirs Festival

James O’Driscoll

The performance of Francis Pott’s oratorio A Song on the End of the World, a 1999 festival commission revived in Gloucester Cathedral for the Three Choirs

The performance of Francis Pott’s oratorio A Song on the End of the World, a 1999 festival commission revived in Gloucester Cathedral for the Th...

IT WAS the inspiration of Adrian Partington, artistic director of this summer’s Three Choirs Festival, that the event should reach out beyond the main evening concerts in Gloucester Cathedral and all-day happenings to a wider audience: the city itself from an opening march embracing all four “gates” (Saxon streets, a Roman foundation leading to the legionary governor’s Principium), to occasions drawing in enthusiastic and even non-auditioned groups, or several charming events designed specifically for even very young children.

Witness The Happy Princess, a more or less accurate treatment of Oscar Wilde’s story, with an artful libretto by Jessica Duchen, and set to music by the TV composer Paul Fincham. This had an enchanting and zippy little Swallow (Lauren Tribe) and stiffly directed Princess (tediously weak entries, but vocally fine: Willow Burden), plus the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir, founded by Partington and rapidly achieving astonishing high standards.

If that was his aspiration, he admirably succeeded. But, of course, this superb week-long festival draws its special strength from choral works, periodically from choirs. Hence, this year, the ORA Singers, conducted by the indefatigable Suzi Digby, garnered a full evening especially with Tallis and anniversary Byrd (the quatercentenary of his death). Yet their most staggering offering was a choral arrangement by Greg Murray of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Did it work? You bet.

Earlier, in “For Anna Magdalena”, the dazzling talents of soprano Carolyn Sampson expounded not merely J. S. Bach, but near-contemporaries such as Christian Petzold (1677-1733), the superlative François Couperin (died the same year); and Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel.

The literary side — talks and lectures, frequently including enterprising visual and musical illustration — is a significant feature of the eight days, too. Elgar, of course, figured from the outset, thanks to David Norris’s ingenious discussion and demonstration of Elgar’s original piano improvisations. Hints of works to come were wrapped up here: it is amazing how, with Elgar, ideas glimpsed early found their way into several of his top works. An informed talk by the conductor Warwick Cole cast much light on the intriguing William Hine, probably the main mover behind the Three Choirs, c.1715, and a composer to set alongside Blow, Croft, and Greene.

The former King’s Singer, now a versatile composer of sacred music, Bob Chilcott took to entertaining the Sanders Society, founded to celebrate Gloucester’s long-serving organist who died prematurely in December 2003. There was a talk on the smallpox pioneer Edward Jenner, resident of Berkeley, south of Gloucester, whose 200th anniversary falls this year, and who is commemorated in the cathedral.

The life of Edward Thomas surfaced with his exquisite poetry in All Saints’, Cheltenham: readings interspersed with splendid settings — six instrumentally novel arrangements of Ivor Gurney; Michael Hurd (Gurney’s inspired first biographer); and Geraint Lewis, colleague formerly of William Mathias. Three premières, including John Merrick (a four-song cycle) brought us up to date.

In another lecture, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia was explored from manuscript, aptly; for two contrasting but grand performances (choral and orchestral) ensued. Another poet, and literary editor, Sir John Squire (1884-1958) was celebrated insightfully by the creative Welsh choral conductor John Hugh Thomas.

Bach’s St John Passion was elaborated on and set beside that of the little-known Bach contemporary Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749), shortly afterwards featured in Cirencester Parish Church, under the incisive direction of Stölzel’s editor and promoter, Warwick Cole, with the Selene Consort — a group of effective young soloists — and Cole’s acclaimed Cheltenham-based period instrument Corelli Orchestra. Not only the sounds were magnificent: the originality of this neglected work was staggering: a kind of Baroque Gesualdo. Bach conducted it in Leipzig in 1734. At the festival members’ lunch, it was the tenor James Gilchrist. He was the mesmerising Evangelist in Bach’s St John Passion, in which the Director of Music of Hereford Cathedral Geraint Bowen evinced endless beauty, unending subtlety, and — even the chorales spoke reams under his leadership — daring forcefulness.

Mention of Bach’s St John Passion leads on to one of the magnificent evening events. Was there any disappointment? Weakness? Any lack of fire, zest, and musical insight from the three main conductors? Certainly not.

Every single evening was packed with marvels, from the very first night, when the Philharmonia’s co-leader (joint concert master) Zsolt Tihamér-Visontay and Partington himself, who would return to thrilling Elgar at the week’s culmination, produced such fireworks from Elgar’s Violin Concerto as threatened to make it eclipse the whole week: such a terrific, edge-of-your-seat interpretation. A wonderful bonus was the Australian Rebecca Chan, whose solos allotted by Elgar to the leader of the orchestra were as enchanting as the soloist himself.

There would prove to be rivals, however. Partington’s reading of Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles — a hit in Birmingham in 1903, in contrast with the derisory initial reception of The Dream of Gerontius — seemed to knock all other marvellous events (except the Violin Concerto) for six. The baritone singing the part of Jesus, Dingle Yandell, was easily my performer of the whole week, elbowing out even the great characteriser Matthew Brook (a knockout St Peter and Pilate in the Bach). But the rest — not least the Virgin Mary paired with Mary Magdalen — shone also. And, if John Savournin slightly lacked the basso profundo of Judas’s suicide aria — “. . . our body shall be turned into ashes. . . I am to myself more grievous than the darkness” — he brought to the fore most appealingly that other viewpoint: of Judas as contrite, even a fatal victim, for whom we, like Elgar, can perhaps feel some sympathy and pity.

The remainder of the week? Holst’s Ode to Death (like Vaughan Williams, he was a Whitman fan) confirmed that there is always something new to find in this composer who died in the same year as Elgar (1934). Then there was Francis Pott’s full-length oratorio A Song on the End of the World, even if the welter of texts gelled less than the excellent technical prowess of this very fine musician, a source of many works, including sacred ones, decidedly worth exploring (visit www.francispott.com).

How could I omit The Pilgrim’s Progress, also drawing, unusually, on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and easily the most impressive of this season’s Vaughan Williams (150th) celebration? Only because there is so much to say that there isn’t room: British Youth Opera’s and the Three Choirs’ varied and naughty choral input; Emyr Lloyd Jones’s stupendous bass Bunyan; the devil Apollyon (Armand Rabot), or Ross Cumming as the Pilgrim, vivid throughout. Most of the audience adored Charlotte Corduroy’s conducting, but hated Will Kerley’s semi-staging. I thought the latter was brilliant, with its derided shifting boxes lending peculiar variety, and always apt for the powerful text. But I may be in a minority of one.

Ronald Corp’s 15-minute song cycle Hail and Farewell struck me as one of this priest-composer’s most triumphant pieces to date, the sheer zest of his Verlaine setting equalled by the specially written final poem (Diana Jones), plus the grieving Catullus with “Ave atque vale” (“atque in perpetuum, frater”) all gloriously conceived by this enviably experienced senior composer, and worth numerous outings.

But, to stick my neck out, my choice for the entire week falls, unforeseen by me, on Gavin Higgins’s equally secular The Faerie Bride. Francesca Simon’s text comes across as a kind of enriched Rusalka (one of those magical works about a water nymph), soaked in Welsh folklore, the “woman” from the “Otherworld” (“I saw him gazing into the lake, trying to see my hidden world”), rejected by a very nasty, contemptuous, xenophobic villagers’ choir. The brilliance of Simon’s writing here, and Higgins’s handling of it, is that it is chock-full of almost twee little repetitions: “Like I (she) was a swan”; “trembling, trembling”; or “Don’t like her, Don’t trust her”. A drawback? Far from it. Superb. Perfection.

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