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A home-coming

PHILIP LANCASTER was at Gloucester
for the UK's 274th Three Choirs Festival


<< Continued from Thursday

The core territory of the Three Choirs Festival, and the origins of its founding in the 1720s, is the choral repertory. This has developed over the years into a week-long series of major concerts in the cathedral. One of the great assets of the Gloucester Three Choirs in recent years has been the securing of the generally consistently excellent Philharmonia Orchestra. This year they once again formed the foundation stone for each performance, the lots being traditionally divided  amongst the three organists of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. As in recent years Richard Hickox, the great champion of British music in both performance and recordings, took a share, directing the first two evening performances.

The first night was to be the only day of rest in the week for the chorus, before the tour de force that lay ahead. Recalling the 1910 première in Gloucester Cathedral at the Three Choirs, the concert opened with a performance of Vaughan Williams' rich and inspiring Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, a piece that was to change the lives of some young composers who heard it, most notably Herbert Howells in the audience on that occasion. As on that evening in 1910 it trespassed onto what was a sacred Elgar evening, a performance of The Dream of Gerontius on that occasion, here encroaching on the second symphony. But before this a significant first public performance: a 'newly discovered' orchestral song by Vaughan Williams, one of Three Nocturnes for baritone and orchestra (one with semi-chorus) setting words by a poet who influenced Vaughan Williams enormously, the American Walt Whitman.

The song performed was Whispers of Heavenly Death, with a mezzo-soprano, Pamela Helen Stephen, taking the solo role. Those expecting the Vaughan Williams we know and love were in for a surprise: this early setting, written in 1908 -- probably for the baritone Frederic Austin (grandfather of the Festival's Chairman, who found the manuscript in the attic of Austin's son) -- is indicative of a composer trying to find his voice: a strangely chromatic work opening with muted strings and brass; cascading woodwind; an extraordinary transformation at the words 'solemn immortal birth', returning to the muted strings and ending with a rising whole-tone scale in the harp, transformed into a modal ascent when taken over by the flute. The overall effect was mysterious and poignant, and left you wanting to hear more: what are the other three songs like? If they are in a state to be performed it would be very exciting to hear this single song in its apparently intended context.

Another relative rarity was a performance of the prelude and six fragments from Granville Bantock's gloriously self indulgent Sappho songs: perhaps Pamela Helen Stephen could have been a little more seductive in parts of these lesbian love songs, especially in her final beckoning 'Hither come'. But hither we returned for a performance of Elgar's highly obsessive Second Symphony. Hickox's pacing of the first two movements was slightly faster than is often done and matched the pace and momentum of Elgar's own recording, notably giving great direction to the mysterious solo oboe passage in the second movement which can sometimes seem to drift and lose sense. The dramatic and disturbing third movement was followed by a finale that began with a highly effective attention to the phrasing of a mellifluous tune surrounded by a wonderfully delicate accompaniment. Only one anomaly showed itself -- Hickox's desire to slow into the second climax of the finale. This aside, it proved a provoking end to an excellent opening concert, setting the scene for the discoveries of the week to come.

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Copyright © 23 September 2001 Philip Lancaster, Chosen Arts, Bristol, UK





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