The Midland's golden oldie

Three Choirs Festival 2013

Gloucester

*****

This year’s Three Choirs Festival, staged in Gloucester under the Artistic Directorship of Adrian Partington, was a high watermark of not just the Midland but the National summer concert season.  

Never mind the BBC Proms: this spectacular Musikfest, one of the biggest quality annual happenings on the English music calendar, dates back to the early 1700s - its putative tercentenary will be celebrated at Hereford under Geraint Bowen in 2015 – and alternates between three Midland cathedral cities, Gloucester, Hereford and – next year - Worcester, where Peter Nardone’s first Festival as Artistic Director will commemorate the 1914 World War I anniversary.  

Coinciding with the Proms and Edinburgh, and hot on the Cheltenham Festival’s heels, the Three Choirs showcases – above all but by no means exclusively - choral music, drawing on a huge, almost Proms-sized triple chorus.  

The Festival’s choice of soloists and quality of performance is invariably stunning. Half the best talent, some of it gifted twenty-somethings, from Covent Garden and elsewhere seem to have migrated to Gloucester for the week. True we were missing two of the superstars: tenor Andrew Kennedy, and mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who is masterminding the celebration of midland composer Ivor Gurney in Gloucester on the last day of the month, were croaking and indisposed. 

But that did not stop Vladimir Ashkenazy – a star since the 1950s when he shared the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition first prize with Britain’s John Ogdon –racing down, as big a name as the Three Choirs has probably drawn since Sibelius, who turned up in 1913, Kodály and of course Elgar. 

The Festival commissions; it promotes emerging talent, above all some formidably accomplished and incredibly well-trained home-grown young and community choirs; it offers a richly rewarding acoustic, or range of acoustics.

Adrian Partington

And it runs a host of other, out-of-cathedral or late night in-the-cathedral events (like a varied and, it must be said, qualitatively varied Gesualdo and Arvo Pärt recital, following Stephen Layton and Polyphony, by a cappella group Musica Beata): chamber concerts, song recitals by big names (James Bowman, Catherine Bott, Roderick Williams, the celebrated if here – in Hindemith’s Rilke-based Marienleben – fractionally underwhelming yet operatically acclaimed mezzo Der-Shin Hwang), a complete new community opera (The Bargee’s Wife) - such as few other gatherings can hope to match.  

Now sporting a new General Manager, Dominic Jewel, an instrumentalist of standing himself and clearly a dynamic, highly capable successor to Paul Hedley, the frighteningly capable and invaluable first full time head of secretariat, who masterminded the detail and oversaw the change to a new, super-efficient central administration coordinating and heading up the three centres, the Three Choirs is, and remains, one of the finest managed large-scale events on the musical calendar.  

Witness one small (well, big, actually) hiccup this year. A fabulous new venue has come into being with the City Council’s refurbishment last year of what survives of Gloucester’s Blackfriars monastery: it’s England’s best-preserved medieval Dominican priory, harking back to the 13th century; the massive atrium now opened up there looks, and sounds, wonderful.  

Williams is a Three Choirs favourite. But come his recital’s first half (songs by Richard Sisson, Nicholas Marshall, American Jackson Hill, and a commission, Songs, from iconic German composer Torsten Rasch, who will furnish next year’s choral centrepiece at Worcester for the 1914 centenary), the noises-off became absurd and almost unbearable. Why? It’s effectively a city centre venue.  

The singer took whirrs and bangs and crashes and clinks of cascading bottles in his stride; and some of the audience did too. But within an hour executive committees galvanised, quickfire decisions were taken, platforming got shifted – a major reorganisation - to an acoustically superior central position; future song recitals will be relocated to the previous more intimate, more sleepy church venue (equally ancient St. Mary de Lode) to counter any recurrence.  

The Songmen

As a late night venue Blackfriars proved out of this world, as with the brilliant, refined and characterful six-man ensemble The Songmen, whose alto line, composer-arranger Ben Sawyer and soaring Guy Lewis, is on a par with West Coast America’s famed not-quite-gay group Chanticleer (soon after its founding the best a cappella group in the world).  

Tenor Robert Murray’s replacing of the indisposed Andrew Kennedy in a Britten song celebration and a spiky John O’Hara premiere (see also his thrilling community opera below) provided the number one choice of vocal connoisseurs. As with his Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Britten can certainly do gloom, witness Williams’ earlier bracing but creepy rendition of Songs and Proverbs of William Blake,  as in ‘The Chimney-Sweeper’: ‘Because I was happy upon the heath…They clothed me in the clothes of death.’ Not exactly cheery. 

Yet the Festival proved time and again that the Midlands is, still, at the heart of English song, or Art Song. Witness the three or four concerts each summer that make up Jennie McGregor-Smith’s series Music at Tardebigge, outside Housman’s Bromsgrove; or the magnificent feast of song that takes place, triennially, as the Ludlow Festival of English Song, under the auspices of the (Gerald) Finzi Friends, and which constantly showcases in the Midlands’ western Marches the very peak of English song composers, present and past, and song interpreters. So far from a Land ohne Musik –Land without Music, as the Germans dubbed it, England at the turn of the last century, plus before and after, was in fact home to Austro-Germany’s mellifluous rival, the English Lied.  

But each time round the cathedral, whichever it is that year, provides the heart of any Three Choirs Festival; and the stupendous triple Festival Chorus – always impressive, and now staggeringly improved under leaders like Partington – makes things whirr musically.  

Witness the white haired Ashkenazy’s astonishing, comically prim but always to the point, direction of the Philharmonia, the orchestra now resident all week at the Three Choirs (another huge selling point, for many might view them as intermittently the best in England – and the same burgeoning, very much on-form chorus, in Rachmaninov’s Edgar Allan Poe sequence – virtually a choral symphony - The Bells, massive in this acoustic; and (again Ashkenazy) marvel at Luonnotar, Sibelius’s exquisitely spare vocal lament actually commissioned for the 1913 Three Choirs, with the moving Finnish soprano Helena Juntunen making hair nerves tingle.  

The only irritation was having neither the Russian words the choir and soloists sang (by Konstantin Balmont, though we did of course have Poe’s original) nor the Finnish of the Sibelius. To omit them from the quite superb Festival programme – a mine of information - looked condescending. 

The Song of Hiawatha – impressively featuring all three parts of it, under Worcester’s Peter Nardone, as a belated tribute to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (died 1912) - is the kind of programming a Three Choirs can risk once or twice in its seven to nine evening span. Some found its – to me – touching tale musically luke-warm. I thought the last section (‘Hiawatha’s Departure’), apart from a few Christian overtones more tiresome Britten’s Lucretia, infinitely superior to the preceding popular hit, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The Afro-Caribbean-sprung composer could structure; and he could score: two reasons why Elgar championed him. The choir went for broke, and sounded pretty thrilling even when the composer’s inspiration or tautness lagged a bit, or a lot.  

South African-born Njabulo Madlala

The Festival’s Artistic Director, Adrian Partington, organist of Gloucester Cathedral and one of the more exciting, possibly excitable musical talents in the Midlands today, pulled off two notable masterstrokes in programming: setting Brett Dean’s endlessly subtle, jagged Berlin Philharmonic commission Komarov’s Fall (the first cosmonaut to die in space, a bit like English Touring Opera’s sad children’s tale Laika the Spacedog) alongside a masterly Holst The Planets; and then having the inspiration to preface Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius opening with the work that nominally inspired it: Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal. 

The parallels are not exact, but in the Prelude and much of the gentler music they are staggering (Elgar first saw Parsifal – the wounded Sir Percival of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur - twice, at Bayreuth in summer 1892, and two years later arranged Wagner’s Good Friday Music for pupils at Worcester High School).  

But it was what followed that took the breath away. A chorus director with awesome conducting experience (above all with the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales), more than an equal for Birmingham and Berlin’s own choral genius, Simon Halsey, Partington found ingredients in Gerontius one had simply never spotted before. Not so much his pacings as the quality of his inner ear, sensing tension and signalling it before it even arose, reading the undercurrents of the work, holding back where others might surge, keeping a lid on things.  

Bass-baritone Matthew Rose, often unequalled, seemed uneasy, even tentative in the (mightily and magnificently reverberant) cathedral acoustic, misjudged it, started some passages sharp, and seemed oddly out of sorts as the Priest, which needs (from a previous generation) a Robert Lloyd or John Shirley-Quirk. One preferred, a night earlier, the characterful South African-born Njabulo Madlala, fresh from his triumph as Escamillo in Winslow Hall Opera – formerly Stowe Opera’s – Carmen,  in  Belshazzar’s Feast: one wished Walton had given his baritone more to do, for Madlala, always expressive and characterful, made last year’s Community event buzz with cheekiness, fun and sheer excellence.  

No such problems for Toby Spence: the exquisite tenor nearly tragically cut down but now returned after illness, and one of the most divine, ravishing young dying souls one is ever likely to hear in Elgar’s once heavily-criticised Parsifalian work, now recognised as one of his surpassing masterpieces. Above all, Estonian mezzo Kai Rüütel as the Angel – beautiful to hear and scintillating to behold (could he/she/it be more meltingly, grippingly sung than this?) lifted a stupendously responsive,  Philharmonia, rich in that palette of Elgarian colours, and Partington’s Gerontius as a whole to one of the most memorable ever, in or out of a Three Choirs context. And the Three Choirs is Elgar’s Bayreuth. It deserved to be put on disc.    

Should Partington, who excitingly tackled Elgar’s rarely-performed Falstaff symphonic poem which emerged glistening and giggling – a bit like one long rampage by G. R. Sinclair’s rumbustious bulldog Dan, immortalised in the Enigma Variations - under his always intelligent baton, and with these fabulous forces in Britten year, have programmed Gloriana, say; or looking ahead, should he contemplate, unless solo line-up and economics prohibit, Nielsen’s Saul and David, another opera-scale choral work that cries out for a Three Choirs airing?  

I should just mention the ‘extra’ day – now in fact made part of the Festival proper, but not one that sadly attracts the usual punters. (Yet never mind, out come a completely different lot, and the cathedral fills once again.)  

This year it was a brand new – though not stage - community opera. The Bargee’s Wife, by the terrific, dynamiting and energising composer-conductor John O’Hara.  

The Midlands’ waterways were, and are again today in a different guise, its arteries, its nerve-complexes, and in a sense the region’s emotional heart. The ticking, the slow chug-chug, of those canal boats on the Grand Union, the Birmingham and Oxford, or through the heartlands of Staffordshire, never ceases to touch a tender nerve.  

Part of the success of Pop and Folk legend Barbara Dickson in singing, not always commandingly but always touchingly, the title role is that she brought home the history, an acutely specific sense of time and place, and the long march of time itself between 1938 and the present day: like the Greek triple goddess Aphrodite-Artemis-Hera, she is the young Bargee’s wife, later a middle aged retiree looking back a quarter of a century later, and finally the crone who watches a new generation of children play on what, as it were, will soon be her grave. Nineteen thirty eight, children playing. Just before the outbreak of war, which would make the canal voyage Gloucester to Sharpness and Bristol perilous, there was a danger even more potent than bombs: Ice. In Karen Hayes’ wonderful libretto – you might have thought T. S. Eliot had offered her nuggets of advice - amid the games (‘Solomon Grundy’ they are singing: quite some folk memory in itself), a small girl - I think unnamed in the script, hence an Everyman, unless she be ‘O my darling Clementine’ - slips, and almost unnoticed slithers below the ice. The Bargee’s Wife is impotent to save her.The whole work is a kind of Requiem for Solomon Pavy, with shades of the similar ditties in John Tavener’s landmark 1960s work Celtic Requiem. (If one had to cite or compare another modern work, it would be Steve Reich’s mesmerising Different Trains, with its groped-after echoes of the Holocaust.)

Barbara Dickson 

Most moving of all is that though a proportion of the text is her own – and cogent and telling it is – Hayes, by joining the composer in tramping, Cecil Sharp-like, up and down the relevant watery countryside, has taken passages of words from the memories of those, now advanced in age and some suffering from dementia, who remember the incident. Those who were the other children then.  

Thus ‘After the breakneck trip To deliver coal to Coventry, or down to the paper mill at Croxley, Or to Braunstone boatyard for painting fresh livery..’ or ‘Her pole, tightrope-walker’s cane’ sit beside ‘Mud on her shoes and a printed dress’…‘I am secured by my father’s thumbs’, ‘One of us drowned, …Slipped off the bank, Slid down and drowned.’ You can sense the provenance: but which is the achingly remembered, ebbing memory, and which the poet? 

It is this kind of intensity which makes The Bargee’s Wife one of the best children’s operas I have never seen staged. Two vocal soloists soared through the air, evoking past and future, but the main soloists were the shimmering Philharmonia Orchestra members, plus harp and keyboards, evincing a marvellous cycle of sounds in O’Hara’s quite wonderful, often syncopated, vibrant score.  

None of this, music or script, talked down to the performers. Only one thing did. I wouldn’t rush to ask Hayes, credited as Director, even to semi-direct her own piece again. The wonderful young Gloucester Cathedral Junior Choir, who sang with such precision (alongside the very good part-community chorus: members of Newent Scottish Singers, Severnside Singers, Gloucester Choral Society, the Ecclesiastical (Insurance) Staff Choir and the Cheltenham Bach Choir) the fading memories of the former playmates they were, not surprisingly, a key element were hopelessly directed. They were left looking feeble, vapidly inventing, flailing; and children are not feeble, do not flail, least of all at drama. 

You cannot have a community event, now excellently deemed part of the Festival proper, and allow it to be the weediest occasion visually in the whole bonanza. The point is to lift the community to standards it did not realise it could attain.  

One more, concomitant gripe: the Junior and Community Choir events which form part of ‘Three Choirs Plus’ were inadequately indicated - the main Youth Chorus concert apart - in not just the preliminary Booking Form or brochure, but in the Programme itself. Though there was a small leaflet one could pick up listing them, one might as well say: ‘Superfluous: don’t bother going.’ Switching from one publication to another is infuriating anyway. But here, for ‘Three Choirs Plus’ you could read ‘Three Choirs, but not really.’ You do not sideline youngsters, let alone your own; or if you do, you so at peril of your soul. 08-13

Roderic Dunnett  

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