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A home-coming

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


Why should it be this year, the first of the new millennium, which has stood out and appealed to concert promoters throughout Britain to celebrate British music? Malcolm Arnold's eightieth birthday has passed un-noticed; likewise Edmund Rubbra's centenary. In contrast the centenary of the birth of Gerald Finzi has been marked universally, with over two hundred performances taking place worldwide. It is perhaps the high-profile nature of these centenary celebrations which have inspired promoters to explore the British musical landscape; Finzi, with his Italian name and Jewish background, would have been proud to have been placed so firmly in the English genre.

Gerald Finzi. Photograph courtesy of the Finzi trust

That the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival should mark British music thus is, in many ways, a home-coming. Gloucestershire is one of the homelands of English music from the nineteenth century renaissance onwards: Parry, known as one of the fathers of English music as we know it (the other being Stanford) came from just outside Gloucester; Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney are all Gloucestershire lads. The latter two used to walk on Chosen Hill, Gloucester, discussing music and poetry; Finzi lived in Gloucestershire for a time, and it was in 1956 on Chosen Hill with Vaughan Williams showing him where he found his inspiration for his Christmas work In Terra Pax, that Finzi caught his final, fatal, illness. Similarly, the Three Choirs has always been a part of a great tradition, this year's festival being the 274th, and was in the first half of the twentieth century a great meeting ground for English musicians:notably, Parry, Finzi and Elgar.

The traditional opening service of the festival was this year held in the morning. Prior to the service David Briggs directed Ian Ball (organ) and the Philharmonia brass in Marche Héroïque by Herbert Brewer (former Gloucester organist, friend of Elgar and teacher of Howells and Gurney), an Elgarian Pomp and Circumstance style march and orchestrated in a splendid manner (again Elgarian in places) by Edward Marsh (surely not Winston Churchill's one time Secretary, Rupert Brooke's mentor and a great supporter of the arts?!). Elgar's Severn Suite and a rousing performance of Handel's Ode to St Cecilia brought us into the service: canticles by Stanford and Britten; some perhaps over-indulgent choral acclamations by David Briggs; a brilliant fanfare to the National Anthem by Herbert Howells, all the more poignant in its suppressed majesty; the service coming to a close with an arrangement by Briggs, again for organ and brass, of Walton's resplendent Crown Imperial. Only one question: was I the only person in the building to whom the last hymn was unknown? Perhaps music should have been supplied as it was for the first, much better known hymn.

Gloucester's St Mary de Lode Church is quite a fortune for the Three Choirs: very local to the Cathedral, acoustically very fresh and open, and the setting for an excellent and diverse series of recitals. The opening recital found its first interloper in the British landscape: Felix Mendelssohn, perhaps forgiven having been a frequent visitor here. Whether interloper or otherwise, one can never shirk at hearing a performance of his youthful Octet, excellently delivered by the Emerald Ensemble. This was preceded by Howells' playful programming in his rarely heard Lady Audrey's Suite and Vaughan Williams' Phantasy Quintet.

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Copyright © 20 September 2001 Philip Lancaster, Chosen Arts, Bristol, UK





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