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Deliciously Romanticised

KEITH BRAMICH attends the
first evening concert of the 2016
Gloucester Three Choirs Festival


This year's Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester, UK, began yesterday (23 July 2016) with an opening service, various talks, a song recital by James Gilchrist, Choral Evensong, The Festival Reception and, in the evening, and the subject of this review, The Holy City and the Heavenly Kingdom — the first choral/orchestral concert in Gloucester Cathedral. The 'overture', as it were, was the original version (with the first verse sung as a solo — here, contralto Sarah Connolly, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra) of Hubert Parry's famous hymn Jerusalem, celebrating its centenary this year. Conductor and Festival Artistic Director Adrian Partington turned to invite the capacity audience to stand and sing along during the second verse — a special experience.

The evening's main fare was a super performance of Edward Elgar's oratorio The Kingdom, Op 51 (1906). Martin Lee-Browne's fascinating programme notes describe Elgar's plan to write a trilogy of oratorios on the teachings of Christ, inspired by the epic scale of Wagner's Ring, and complete with leitmotivs :

The first occurrence of Jaeger's 'New Faith' leitmotiv in the orchestral prelude to Elgar's 'The Kingdom' (in piano reduction) - a theme which recurs throughout the work
The first occurrence of Jaeger's 'New Faith' leitmotiv in the orchestral prelude to Elgar's 'The Kingdom' (in piano reduction) - a theme which recurs throughout the work. Click on the image for higher resolution

Elgar managed to write two of the projected three works, The Apostles (ending with Christ's ascension) and The Kingdom, which dramatises the apostles in Jerusalem and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Part three, The Last Judgement, never progressed beyond sketches.

After its strong orchestral prelude, The Kingdom, a narrative work running for over ninety minutes, has five sections — In the Upper Room, At the Beautiful Gate, Pentecost, The Sign of Healing and The Upper Room — but came across as a big, deliciously romanticised and continuously varied whole, helped by Partington's swift tempi.

Nimble and well-rehearsed, the Three Choirs Festival Chorus (formed from members of the choral societies of each participating city — Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester) took on various roles in this piece, notably Disciples and Holy Women, 'the people', the mystic chorus (sopranos and altos only), and, at one point, providing a choral recitative.

In addition to fine violin solos from the Philharmonia's leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, a super team of vocal soloists took the main roles of Mary (Claire Rutter, soprano), Mary Magdalene (Sarah Connolly, contralto) and Peter (Ashley Riches). Due to the advertised tenor soloist James Oxley being indisposed, one of Gloucester Cathedral's choral scholars, Magnus Walker, gallantly stepped in at literally only a few hours' notice, to sing the tenor role of John, receiving a big audience cheer at the end. Only eighteen years old, he leaves Gloucester for London in September 2016 to take up a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music to study with Ben Johnson.

The Three Choirs Festival continues until Saturday 30 July 2016, and there's more Elgar on offer: the Enigma Variations, Introduction and Allegro and Serenade for Strings. Other large-scale choral works include Mendelssohn's Elijah, Berlioz's Grande messe des morts, Orff's Carmina burana and Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand.

If you're very quick, you could still catch this afternoon's Howells and Lancaster concert in Cirencester Parish Church (3.30pm). Herbert Howells' Requiem is followed by the first performance of War Passion by Gurney scholar Philip Lancaster (who once graced these pages, reporting on the 2001 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival). This new work sets the Passion of Christ as told in Mark's Gospel, with commentary by World War I poets Julian Grenfell, Edward Thomas, Charles Sorley, Robert Graves, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen and of course Gloucester's own Ivor Gurney.

There's more Gurney in the festival too: in Gloucester Lads on Wednesday, Marcus Farnsworth sings the Gurney cycle Lights Out, and Gurney is featured alongside Rachmaninov, Howells, Ireland, Bridge and Worcester-based composer Ian Venables in Mark Bebbington's piano recital An English Rachmaninov on Friday. Paul Spicer's talk An Unlikely Trio on Wednesday concentrates on Gurney and two of his fellow Gloucester Cathedral choristers: Herbert Howells and Ivor Novello.

Friday evening's Enigma and Carmina concert features the first performance of a Three Choirs Festival commission (in association with the Mindsong charity): Joseph Phibbs' short Memento Musica, which uses as its theme one of the earliest known fully notated melodies — the Song of Seikilos from about 100BC. Incidentally, it was good to spot German composer Torsten Rasch, whose A Foreign Field was first performed at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 2014, in last night's audience.

The festival's theme this year is the eight hundredth anniversary of the coronation of the nine-year-old King Henry III, in the building which would become Gloucester Cathedral. Musically, this is represented by Stile Antico's concert Sacred or Profane? on Monday and by thirteenth century music and poetry from the group Conductus on Tuesday.

Gloucester Cathedral, a few minutes before last night's concert. Photo © 2016 Keith Bramich
Gloucester Cathedral, a few minutes before last night's concert. Photo © 2016 Keith Bramich

If you're unable to attend this week's Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, Wednesday's Choral Evensong, featuring the first performance of another Festival commission, Ian King's The Gloucester Service, plus a rare chance to hear music by the Festival Artistic Director's father, Kendrick Partington, will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Roderic Dunnett (who kindly invited me to last night's concert) plans to report here on the whole festival in due course. Further information about this week (and next year's festival at Worcester) is available at

Copyright © 24 July 2016 Keith Bramich,
Worcestershire UK














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