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The Tuesday evening was one of the disappointing performances of the festival: Roy Massey directing a programme of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, Howells' monumental Hymnus Paradisi and Finzi's Intimations of Immortality, the first premièred at the Gloucester festival in 1928 and the latter two in 1950.

The leader of the Philharmonia, James Clark, was the soloist in the Vaughan Williams in a well-controlled performance -- initially a little slow, but effective. Howells' passionate Hymnus Paradisi was rendered incoherent under Roy Massey's direction; likewise Finzi's Intimations of Immortality. That they were under-rehearsed is undoubted given the programme of the festival, but it seemed that Massey neither knew nor understood the works or, if he did, had no means of relaying this to the performers with conducting that lacked any sense of precision or direction.

That the chorus were a little scrappy can be forgiven in the perspective of the week: it is highly remarkable the amount of large scale repertoire that has been covered by this chorus in preparation for the festival, and its members performed no mean feat in performing them all within such a short time: I'm sure that even a professional chorus would shirk at such a tour de force, consisting of the huge Mass of Life, Belshazzar's Feast, The Apostles, RVW's Sea Symphony, Hymn of Jesus, Messiah, Hymnus Paradisi and Intimations, never mind the large scale Briggs Creation -- all taken on by an amateur chorus. That they were beginning to flag a little is no surprise, especially when in this performance Massey made them stand throughout the full forty-five minutes of each work. I realise that the choral side is the core of the festival, but perhaps future festivals could at least give them a night off or ease the programming a little.

Indeed the chorus should be highly commended on following Massey's sometimes highly erratic speeds in the Intimations: one section ('Now while the birds thus sing a joyous song') was taken so fast that the orchestra couldn't keep up, being pulled apart at the seams, and likewise the chorus when they entered. Massey kept this speed up right through the following passages (marked poco sostenuto and given a much slower tempo marking in the score), destroying any sense of pacing which is so essential in Finzi. Likewise, he ploughed through several of the tenor solo passages, with Adrian Thompson -- although not quite the lyric tenor that either piece required, being a little weighty in parts -- admirably biting his lip and keeping up with Massey's erratic tempi. However, these two remarkable works, despite the warts, made a lasting impression on many who did not know the pieces, coming away quite overwhelmed in parts -- a great tribute to the power and strength of Howells' and Finzi's writing.

This emphasises the point that organists do not necessarily make good conductors: David Briggs got some good results throughout his events, although not always consistent and focused; Adrian Lucas coped admirably with Friday's Apostles. Both of these were plausible and if given the whole festival I'm sure would have produced satisfactory results, but when compared to Hickox on the first two nights, there is ultimately only one winner.

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





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