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The view down Hereford Cathedral at the opening service. Picture: Ash Mills

Three Choirs Festival

Hereford Cathedral

TIME and again the Three Choirs Festival, celebrating its 300th birthday this year and held annually in one of the three cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford, proves to be not just a major artistic event, but one of the supreme highlights of the English musical calendar.

This month, after a week at Hereford programmed by Artistic Director Geraint Bowen proved a veritable triumph, all are in mourning, for one of the week’s finest soloists, the organist John Scott.john scott

Scott went on from Hereford to give recitals in mainland Europe, in Finland and Sweden, before returning to the United States, where he was organist of St. Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, New York. He was immediately taken ill and died on Wednesday 12 August of a suspected heart attack, aged only 59. A former organ scholar of St. John’s College, Cambridge, John is a tragic loss to music on both sides of the Atlantic.

John Scott, organist and director of music at St. Thomas’s, Fifth Avenue, New York, who died this month, aged 59

John Scott gave one of the world premieres of the week, of which there were in fact half a dozen - an initiative of the Three Choirs that deserves recognition. On this occasion it was a contribution to the growing Orgelbüchlein project, in which composers are building up a repertoire of modern organ preludes inspired by Bach’s famous collection of that name.

Anthony Powers is a significant figure in British music, based in outer Herefordshire and thus a Midland composer in the wider sense, who deserves a larger place on our concert platform. His list of mentors is like a who’s who of great teachers of our era: Nadia Boulanger, Elisabeth Lutyens, Bernard Rands, David Blake and Harrison Birtwistle.

Composer in Residence and more recently Professor of Composition at Cardiff University, Powers is a symphonist (his two symphonies followed one another in the 1990s), a writer of concertos and (four) string quartets, and composer of choral and vocal works. Appropriately, he has been commissioned before by the Hereford Three Choirs: Airs and Angels was a setting of seven poems by John Donne which centres around (interestingly) Donne’s ‘A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day’.

Another 2015 Three Choirs commission which gave immense satisfaction was ‘A Swift Radiant Morning’. This was by Welsh-born Rhian Samuel, co-editor of the New Grove (Norton) Dictionary of Women Composers, and winner of the Glyndŵr Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts in Wales. She has selected and set five poems by the young poet Charles Sorley, who was killed in the vicious Battle of Loos, fought between Lille and Arras in the autumn of 1915.

Samuel, who turned 70 last year but is patently fresh and lithe as if she were just 30, is an imaginative, fresh-thinking composer whose style here struck one as always boldly original and exploratory. Sorley’s long free verse poem The Sounds of War builds via the ironicthree directors ‘Close by, a quick-firer is pounding away / Its allowance of a dozen shells a day. / It is like a cow coughing’ to an explosive central and final section (‘What you have seen is the foam and froth of war....Then what pandemonium!’ It is not entirely a profound poem, but making allowances for the age of the poet, its analogies are thought-provoking.

The three cathedral music directors - Geraint Bowen (front), Peter Nardone and Adrian Partington  Picture: Ash Mills

Elsewhere Sorley is in rustic but prescient mood: ‘There, where the rusty iron lies / The rooks are cawing all the day. / Perhaps no man, until he dies / Will understand them, what they say’; and again with The Signpost, in which he addresses death, he recalls, tellingly, his personal school runs from Marlborough over the Wiltshire Downs, in In Memoriam S. C. W. he remembers a Marlborough friend and Victoria Cross winner killed on 30 July, a few weeks before himself, at Hooge in Belgium; Woodruffe’s elder brother, also a Marlburian, was killed two months earlier the same year. Baritone Roderick Williams, who performed the cycle, a composer himself, brought his profound musical insight and adorable tone to the settings (much hinged, too, on the talents of his regular accompanist, Susie Allan), and went on to fascinate by giving a rendering of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, written for and usually sung by a female voice. (Australian Baritone Michael Lampard will sing the same Elgar songs at the Perrin’s Hall, Royal Grammar School, Worcester on Sunday 23 August at 3.00 p. m.).

The week’s other premieres included a new setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis by the former King’s Singer Bob Chilcott, an immensely popular composer whose Latin Requiem had already two days earlier been brought to life by the Three Choirs Youth Choir, a treasurable and gifted ensemble for 16 to 25 year olds founded in 2010 by Gloucester’s Adrian Partington and conducted here by Dr. Peter Nardone, of Worcester Cathedral.

This group, albeit a little subdued in places, Sorleyshone in many ways: the fine tenor soli of Ruairi Bowen, scion of a multi-talented family, and the choir’s passionate Exaudi cries in the opening; a long drawn out treatment of the Kyries; a lilting Offertorio and striking diminuendo in the dying away (‘from the pains of hell and from the deep pit’). The soprano Sophie Gallagher was utterly beguiling in the Pie Jesu, with a distinctive clarinet winding up.

The latter stages were if anything more engaging: vivid singing from the sopranos in the Benedictus; splendid use of woodwind in the Agnus Dei, again with appealing solo tenor passages; a glorious horn solo (plus oboe) in the setting of Purcell’s prayer ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not Thy merciful ears unto our prayer’; and a charming use of wind quintet at the end.

The poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed at Loos in October 1915

Young choirs sing Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms these days as if they had known them, and their tricky Hebrew texts, all their lives. The big surprise was the alto soloist, Patrick Dunachie, who sang ‘Adonai ro-I’ as if he had been a King’s Singer for years. And that he was, for he and Bowen are both ex-choral scholars of King’s College, Cambridge. Utterly melting, exquisitely beautiful.

Other new works included the imaginative setting of ‘Glory to Thee, my God, this night’ by the 300th anniversary Choral Competition winner George Arthur; and by the prominent German composer Torsten Rasch, who (like Rhian Samuel), in a fabulously well conceived cycle sung with wisdom and insight by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, concentrated on one poet, the Welshman Alun Lewis, killed in action in Burma in World War Two, aged 28.

Chamber Music was very decently represented: the Bardic Trio, offering a selection of Celtic Song; the instrumental Ensemble 360, founded in Sheffield by the late violinist Palun lewiseter Cropper, in gorgeously alluring mixed repertoire - Britten, Debussy and composers from Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland); the Wihan Quartet (Smetana, etc.) and the Ferio Saxophone Quartet; - bringing Michael Nyman, the Hungarian Ferenc Farkas (1905-2000), Graham Fitkin and less well known figures from France (Jean Rivier, 1896-1987, a colleague of Milhaud) and Belgium (Jean-Baptiste Singelée, 1812-75, who was a friend and contemporary of the saxophone’s inventor, Adolphe Sax, 1814-94).

 Welsh poet Alun Lewis

Add to these scintillating solo recitals by legendary pianist Steven Osborne and by several young organists (the whole of Widor’s Symphony No. 5; Langlais and Leighton, plus Arvo Pärt’s mesmerising Pari Intervallo; Jehan Alain and Henri Mulet), plus near the close, the wondrously talented Natalie Clein (BBC Young Musician of the Year award-winning cellist) with her Norwegian accompanist, playing in their disarming way Debussy, Kurtág and Rachmaninov.

Worth mentioning is a specially enterprising vocal concert by what are described as the Three Choirs Festival Young Musicians of 2014, in a programme of Schubert, Brahms, Richard Strauss with a second half of English Song, including Butterworth - another who died in a World War campaign - Frank Bridge, his pupil Britten; and an intriguing addition, ‘So we’ll go no more a-roving’ (words Lord Byron) by Maude Valérie White (1855-1937), a hugely successful Victorian song-writer, and the first female winner of the coveted Mendelsson Prize who lived into her 80s but is miserably neglected by recent generations.

She dedicated this, perhaps her most popular song, to her contemporary, the actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917).

The Festival Players, a vivacious and enlivening ensemble directed by Michael Dyer, each of whose half-dozen performers played many parts, brought Shakespearian drama with Henry IV (a one afternoon conflation of Parts 1 and 2); and As You Like It. One of the other main ‘dramatic’ happening was a (partially comic) recital by Sir Roy Strong and actress Siân Phillips of readings from across the centuries, from Edward III and his unfortunate grandson Richard II via Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to Victoria and Edward VII. Different speakers also offered a view on the great anniversaries of 2015: the Magna Carta (1215), the Jacobite Rising of James III (the ‘Old’ Pretender - 1715) and the Battle of Waterloo (1815).

Henry IV, colourfully presented by The Festival Players

But appetising though all this was, it in a sense constitutes a Three Choirs ‘fringe’ - a very important one - to the main, mostly evening, concerts in the Cathedral. These are the major occasions on which throughout the entire week the Three Choirs Festival Chorus - a vast and superb array of singers drawn from the choral societies of the three constituent cathedrals - is supported by the presence of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Each of these are, in their way, magnificent musicians. While the choir is the focus of the whole event, the orchestra provides the backbone - excelling in works like the Verdi Requiem (who could imagine such a work without the full force of the Philharmonia’s orchestral brass?)

The fact that the festival could add on almost as an envoi this giant of the choral repertoire, conducted with shrewdness, dependability and perceptiveness by Geraint Bowen, speaks reams for the stature of the Three Choirs.

Originally conceived of for Rossini’s funeral, and latterly perhaps a memorial to his own mother, it is well worthy of the creator of the Tournedos Rossini, or as a family memorial - or indeed, from that same period, of Berlioz: ‘An opera in disguise’, some dubbed it: not so much dark and mystical, the programme notes suggested, as overtly dramatic. 

The cellos at the opening, the tenors (real tenors, they sounded like) for the initial ‘Te decet hymnus’, the Philharmonia trumpets for ‘Tuba mirum’ - all these got us off to a spellbinding start.

Later it was solo detail - the soprano’s octave fall (prizewinner Katherine Broderick; Bowen certainly showed a fine-honed talent for recruiting his soloists this summer), the cello link to the mezzo (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) before a stunning upper voice duet in the ‘Recordare’ section, which greatly impressed.

Bass Alastair Miles brought his classic Verdian oMadlalaperatic voice to ‘Confutatis maledictis’, relishing those sinister ‘flammis acribus addictis. The choir men rounding off the ‘Lacrymosa’, excelled. ‘Hostias’ was the best contribution from Justin Lavender, here in earlier passages a slightly uneven tenor replacement.

The impact of the soprano-led Libera me was quite staggering. Nor should one omit the very last, or ensuing ‘extra’ night, in which community groups ventured forth in the cathedral to sing a varied, attractively international programme, led by the South African-born baritone Njabulo Madlala, an immensely popular figure with a pretty sensational voice and delicious presence, not least in the culminating Medley of African songs.

South African-born baritone Njabulo Madlala, a hit with the Hereford audience

And this was the uplifting story for most of the week-long festival. Perhaps most welcome from the point of view of repertoire were two evenings early on: first, the dazzling Turangalila Symphony of Olivier Messiaen, steered through by the superlative Dutch conductor Jac van Steen, in which the various cyclic elements that run through the work, and the startling orchestration require profoundly careful and attentive balancing.

Despite its revolutionary nature it’s a work I find, as Messiaen evolves the sequential and sectional techniques which were to last him a lifetime, has its longueurs. Yet from the wonderful tuned and untuned percussion to the riches of wind and brass, it is certainly a vast monolith, or should I say polylith? Tellingly, it played to a full cathedral; so much for the idea that Three Choirs audiences will boycott something new.

The other was Sir Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes. Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and led by a replacement Speaker, Malcolm Sinclair, who performed remarkably well (apart, perhaps, from some scattered weak consonants), the work, first heard in 1930, is a heaving lament for the brutality and thoughtlessness of war, expressed through the powerful poetry of Homer’s Iliad, Walt Whitman (Drum-Taps) and then Wilfred Owen (‘Spring Offensive) and Robert Nichols, 1893-1944, who fought at both Loos and in France (‘Dawn on the Somme’), the whole work is an outpouring of grief and anger.

Bliss himself served almost throughout the Great War. The work is strikingly well conceived - the offsetting of female voices (‘Vigil’) and men’s voices (opening ‘The Bivouac’s Flame’; richly coloured orchestral playing in the latter; details of chromatic flute or tramping double basses in the first Whitman extract; immensely expressive solo tympanum during the Owen. This was a performance to remember, and no less because of a strongly articulated and latterly heaving Fifth Symphony of Sibelius in the first half (both this and the Nielsen above being 150th anniversary tributes to their respective composers).

The week’s close-packed events also included a Dream of Gerontius performed with much flair, not least from the vigorous triple chorus, a MasGerontiuss in C (Beethoven) that had massive weight and majesty, and a double bill of Carl Nielsen and Mathias that unveiled the extraordinary expressiveness and orchestrating gifts of the latter. These last were conducted, respectively, by Geraint Bowen’s colleagues, Adrian Partington of Gloucester and Peter Nardone of Worcester.

Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, with soloists Paul Nilon and Sarah Connolly Picture: Ash Mills

Yet two of the Festival’s most beautifully executed programme events were outside the Philharmonia’s orbit. One, by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, had the wit to preface Stravinsky’s ever-familiar The Rite of Spring with two real rarities: the 1912 one-act ballet La Péri, heralded by a famously éclatant brass Fanfare, by Debussy’s colleague Paul Dukas; and another symphonic poem, La Tragédie de Salomé, by Florent Schmitt. Both works, it should be noted, predate the Rite by some time, and the influence of Schmitt’s seminal work on Stravinsky is broadly accepted.   

In the Dukas, the contrasting pianissimo strings, the La Mer-like surges, the vital woodwind detail all made a great impact, to my ears brilliantly played by these young performers under the encouraging lead of former ENO musical Paul Daniel, who conducted.

The Schmitt impacted in other ways: the general swirl, bass clarinet muttering under its colleagues, a sectional launch that seems to anticipate Holst, or a spare passage allocated to two clarinets and two trumpets: there is far too much to itemise.

The other winning event, were this a keenly contested competition, was undoubtedly the ‘out of season’ performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, given on the Tuesday by the Three Cathedral Choirs (boys and men, as opposed to the mixed voice Festival Chorus).

Three things guaranteed this to be a concert that was out of this world: the one concert of the week that achieved an elevated status as no other did, despite their individual excellence, apart from the youth orchestra’s appearance. What sealed it was the Evangelist; the performance of Christ himself; and the acute intelligence not just of the boys, but of the whole choir.

The Narrator, tenor James Oxley, sang the entire work from memory; in German, no little feat: and his daring enabled him to devote all his energy to meditate upon the words, and deliver a concentrated, thrilling reading that led us to focus on Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion.

Admirable though the other soloists proved, especially the expressive countertenor William Towers, and a rather good St. Peter from the choir ranks not least, it was the superb enunciation of the German texts by these articulate and obviously magnificently trained boys, who brought their own character to chorales (‘Befiehl du deine Wege’ and choruses alikmatthew Brooke (‘Sind Blitze, sind Donner’, ‘Der du den Tempel Gottes zerbrichst’), with the three lower voices in able support, which impressed everyone.

The ensemble, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, brought capable oboe obbligati and especially two magical violin solos to the unfolding of the famous ‘Erbarme dich’ and ‘Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder’, plus the second appearance of the six-stringed viola da gamba (Roderick Williams’s ‘Komm, süsses Kreuz’) evoking Simon of Cyrene’s readiness to release Jesus from carrying the cross.

Baritone Matthew Brook, superb in the role of Christ in an outstanding St. Matthew Passion

And there was Matthew Brook’s singing of the crucial role of Christ. Many are those who have essayed this role and not quite triumphed; perhaps many who have. Brook is among the noblest of them all. Jesus has less to sing in the later stages than in Bach’s earlier St. John Passion. But in the initial scenes one heard Brook’s glorious voice and magnetising interpretation to best effect: the house at Bethany, and the full pathos of The Last Supper; Jesus’s warning to St. Peter and the betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; and latterly his prediction to the High Priest and famous ‘du sagest’s’ in reply to Pilate, were brought out to staggeringly intense and powerful effect.

Matthew Brook’s voice and stage persona are things one would gladly travel a long way to hear. He is the tops. And here, with the attentive continuo of the OAE, we surely caught him at his very best.

So this was a festival to be treasured and marvelled at from start to finish: something to set against much celebrated Edinburgh Festival and BBC Proms. Now the bandwagon moves on to Gloucester for 2016, and we are all in eager anticipation.

Roderic Dunnett



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