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Sing ye to the Lord

2009 Hereford Three Choirs Festival


If one word sums up the 2009 Three Choirs Festival, it would be 'professional'. Held this year at Hereford (the annual event alternates or shifts between Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester), this unquestionably superb festival -- founded in the early eighteenth century not long after George I ascended the English throne -- is one of the supreme highlights of the English summer.

The Three Choirs Festival
The Three Choirs Festival

Indeed as a model of how to run a major English Festival, and especially choral festival, outside London, the Three Choirs arguably has no peer: not even Norwich, King's Lynn, Harrogate or Lichfield can hold a candle to it. Only Buxton, and Gloucester's neighbours Cheltenham and Bath, are likely contenders.

Geraint Bowen
Geraint Bowen

The Hereford Three Choirs Festival's Artistic Director -- the three organists rotate the role annually -- is Geraint Bowen, whose programming is invariably bold, exploratory and worthwhile -- this year's 'seasonal' theme, with its ingeniously chosen content, was no exception, and was delivered by him with his usual rare patience, quiet brilliance and rare musical assurance. The sheer calibre of the concerts on offer, and the sheer stamina of the massive Festival Chorus (this summer sounding better and more consistent than ever) left one aghast.

Members of the joint Three Choirs Chorus, drawn from the festival's three adjacent counties, bear the brunt of the major concerts, from which they emerged magnificently in Haydn, Mendelssohn, Elgar and Britten. They share the credit with the Philharmonia Orchestra, equally contenders to be England's best, and certainly its most bold, creative, risk-taking, and inventive. Their first-class organisation headed by David Whelton and fronted by co-leader James Clark (whose solo in Strauss' Four Last Songs was surely yet another of the week's many highlights) furnishes the festival with unique quality control and guarantees, as the Festival organisers point out, playing of a world standard.

With the establishment of a highly proficient professional festival team to coordinate and lead collaboration between the three closely allied venues, the Three Choirs may be said to have arrived in the 21st century on top-class form.

Last year's Three Choirs programme designed by Worcester's Adrian Lucas threw up unexpected triumphs: an Elgar Apostles conducted by himself which few should forget; a spectacular out-of-season Christmas Oratorio in which New College's Edward Higginbottom led the three Cathedral Choirs to entirely new heights of personal performance; and a film music finale which yielded the Three Choirs roster, following the sad death last year of Richard Hickox, a new expert on British music and yet another world-class conductor, still in his thirties: John Wilson.

Next year's Artistic Director, Adrian Partington, has already unveiled some of the high points to be expected at Gloucester in 2010: Elgar's The Kingdom and also (a wonderfully bold decision) his Violin Concerto; Mahler's Second Symphony; Holst's St Paul's Suite (for orchestra) and The Hymn of Jesus; a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley, himself scion of a great house (those interested should hunt down a copy of Donald Hunt's masterly biography, published by Seren Books); and a positive feast of visiting conductors, including Sir Roger Norrington.

'I'm really pleased with the way this year's Hereford Three Choirs has gone', admits General Manager Paul Hedley, who took on the job following a patently successful 2007 festival at Gloucester. Hedley and Deborah Liggins, the festival's new Development Manager, who has a long connection with the Three Choirs through coordinating previous festivals in Worcester, provide the backbone of a strongly effective administration which is helping lift the Three Choirs, as the festival's joint committee chairman Bernard Day points out, onto a whole new professional footing.

Looking back on Hereford 2009, Hedley can now freely concede, 'It's been a very successful, crisis-free week. One of the key tests during the festival itself is how often the phone rings. As General Manager I don't want it to ring -- as that would mean problems! But there have been remarkably few' (no conductors collapsing, for instance, as sadly befell the late Vernon Handley two summers ago). 'Ticket sales have boomed, with many total sell-outs. The reception accorded the artists by the audience at the end of concerts has been tremendous: on the Sunday night, when Jennifer Pike played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Tughan Sokhiev conducted Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (another key bit of this year's 'Seasons' programme), the artists got called back seven times!

'I honestly believe', Dr Hedley adds, 'that in our respective roles we can make a real difference to the way this festival is run, and where this festival is going. Together we're going through a period of very positive change, affecting all three organisations. The expectation of our audiences is for everything to run smoothly, and happily, or hopefully, that's something we're becoming increasingly able to deliver with a high degree of consistency.

'We try,' both Paul Hedley and Debbie Liggins emphasise, 'to set ticket prices at an affordable level (around thirty six pounds for the main body of the Cathedral, with side aisle and transept seats nearer 24-25 pounds). The seating plans and seat pricing calculation all have to be sorted out before the beginning of year, before the final level of sponsorship is known.'

There are two crucial things, says Hedley, about having the Philharmonia on board. 'The first is obviously audience experience: the Philharmonia makes a really wonderful contribution in terms of artistic excellence; and secondly together with that they have an absolutely outstanding management, led by David Whelton, and all their back up and support staff too. They like coming here, their orchestral soloists contribute to our chamber concerts (this year, the Philharmonia Brass filling the cathedral's ample spaces with Gabrieli, Praetorius and Rautavaara), we love having them; and they are absolutely integral and crucial to our recent success.'

Deborah Liggins points, with good justification, to two key areas of the festival's ongoing development: the positive emphasis placed on involving young artists; and its role of performing and commissioning new music. She can point to real and tangible successes here: the concerts by Martyn Lane's new Herefordshire Junior Singing Club, who performed a lunchtime concert with impressive confidence and aplomb at St John's Church this year; the appearance once again of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, performing music by Mahler and Arwel Hughes under the composer's son, the distinguished conductor Owain Arwel Hughes; various masterclasses; and the clutch of intelligently-programmed organ recitals given by prize-winning college students selected by the Royal College of Organists (now a Three Choirs 'regular' which, Debbie points out, is already in its fifth year).

But it doesn't stop there: Debbie Liggins is able to draw attention to much more, such as the inclusion in the Sunday night Choral Evensong of an anthem, The Prophecy of Joel, by sixteen-year-old Hereford pupil Patrick Dunachie; vital performances in the Powell Theatre of a revamped version of Aeschylus's Agamemnon performed by the young ensemble Kaloi k'Agathoi, a vital and vibrant group already well versed in Aristophanes and dedicated to bringing classics, by means of interactive drama, into schools and the community at large, as one of the very much on the doorstep Three Choirs Plus events; the founding of a new young people's choir, the Three Choirs Festival Singers, which could have a major impact in due course; or the terrific late-night concert by Hereford Cathedral School Chamber Choir, encompassing a huge and serious repertoire (eight-part de Pearsall, Tallis, Debussy, Villette) with the quality of musicianship one might expect of Mike Brewer's National Youth Choir of Great Britain or Ralph Allwood's Rodolfus.

The other, for which Deborah Liggins has the key role of attracting sponsors and raising the money, is to showcase new work by contemporary composers. (John McCabe was this year's immensely popular and successful Festival Composer.) 'We see that as an essential part of the festival. Some of those commissioned in the past admittedly haven't seen the light of day again; others have gone on to become part of the mainstream repertoire.' But context is important too: the rest of the concert has to be carefully worked out in terms of repertoire, not least so as to give the new work its element of surprise.

'Part of the festival's alchemy', says Paul Hedley, 'is to try to maintain the English church music and mainstream choral tradition while bringing it together with both new contemporary composers (Hereford in 2006 was particularly good in this respect) and composers who haven't been heard at the festival before.' The festival's history bears this out. 'For instance, in 1913 at Gloucester, the Three Choirs included both Sibelius's Luonnotar, then hot off the press, and the closing scene from Strauss's Salome.' Strauss was back this year, too: his Four Last Songs, sung with ravishing beauty and impressive authority by soprano Sally Matthews under the supportive musical direction of Adrian Partington, was one of those superb moments when the Three Choirs Festival sometimes effortlessly matches or betters the standards of the BBC Proms.

Sally Matthews
Sally Matthews

The Three Choirs box office, which in festival week also includes a bevy of talented and personable youngsters led by their patient, problem-resolving Ticket Office Manager Eric Snape; the organisation of numerous back-up facilities; the supervision of Morning, Lunchtime, Afternoon and Late Night concerts at sundry venues; the Information Point; the entire Operations Team, watched over at Hereford by Cathedral Operations Philip Dickinson, Outside Events Manager Mary Taylor and a host of affable but firm festival stewards; and not least, the superb camera work, despatching pictures along the cathedral side aisles on a plethora of huge flat screens: all of these point to a massive, polished and strikingly successful logistical exercise.

Those willing to venture beyond the city boundaries were amply rewarded: by a performance in Tewkesbury Abbey of Bach's B minor Mass by the Rodolfus Choir -- another instance of giving prominence to the young, for many have scarcely left school, in a handsome enough performance marred only by a laboured launch and the occasional dull tempo (not so the splendid Gloria), with American soprano Elizabeth Weisberg especially impressive (a resplendent 'Laudamus Te', for instance), and the choir performing heroically; although the most striking element here was the playing of the period band Corelli Orchestra, including an especially fine trumpet soloist (for the bass's 'Quoniam tu solus') plus superb flute and cello soli near the end; or else with an appearance by the young Tippett Quartet in nearby Leominster Priory; one of the lectures, by Sir Roy Strong, embracing Norman Kilpeck Church with its gargoyles and atmospheric Abbey Dore, in the Golden Valley; or the final day's Gregorian Chant Workshop at Belmont Abbey led by the group Opus Anglicanum.

But the heart of the festival was the flower-festooned Cathedral itself -- which, as the Dean, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor, observed, benefited from the setting up of no less than 125 flower arrangements: almost a military exercise in itself. Here came the central large-scale performances which give the Three Choirs its virtually unique character, and for the excellence of which it is justly honoured. I missed Adrian Thompson singing Elgar's Gerontius, a role I would have thought his anguished expressiveness might have served well, though reactions were mixed: he will reprise the role with Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday 28 November 2009 (with Roderick Williams as the Priest) as part of that choir's fortieth anniversary celebrations, which will give those who, like me, missed him a chance to form their own view. Among the middle generation there are few finer performers of English song.

Adrian Lucas
Adrian Lucas

Adrian Lucas presided over immensely desirable and lucid performances of Finzi's Clarinet Concerto (with the lithe Emma Johnson, a Three Choirs perennial favourite) and Britten's Spring Symphony, which from the very first movement (George Chapman's 'Shine out, fair sun ..!' could scarcely have been more revealing. Lucas's tempi seemed all well-judged (no mean feat in this taxing work), not least for his large vocal forces, who delivered a buoyant performance (aptly) brim full of life.

The aubade of the third movement, with soloists Rachel Nicholls, Jeanette Ager (the superb stand-in mezzo) and James Oxley sparkling against the massive aural panels of the choir's 'Spring, the sweet spring', was a joy; likewise the whistling cheerfulness of the George Peel-meets-John Clare -- sixteenth century rubbing shoulders with eighteenth -- of 'The Driving Boy': 'Strawberries swimming in the cream / And schoolboys playing in the stream': almost comically ironic lines for the ever-ingenious Britten to set.

The ever-sympathetic Philharmonia turned up trumps again and again: deft interjections by flute and other woodwind for Ager's 'Welcome, maids of honour' (Herrick); pre-echoes of the War Requiem for Oxley's sotto voce-introduced 'Waters above! Eternal springs! / The dew, that sivers the Dove's wings!' (Henry Vaughan, though you can sense Hopkins on the way). Mr Lucas's conducting goes from strength to strength: more benign than it used to be, it increasingly draws the best from large forces, just as he has always done from his own superbly drilled cathedral choir in Worcester (and Portsmouth before it).

Curiously it was the boys who just missed the boat, at the end: we couldn't hear the words or even notes of their is 'Sumer is a-cumin in' counterpointing Beaumont and Fletcher's sylvan evocation of London (as rural as Griff Rhys-Jones' journey down the Essex-London River Lea a few days later on BBC1). So the end was exciting, but not quite rapturous as the composer intended.

The work that began that concert, Haydn's undoubtedly sparkling Te Deum, was as splendidly and convincingly delivered as it is (arguably) musically thin; Poulenc's Gloria under Adrian Partington lost something to an only moderately successful soprano soloist, Carys Lane, and some overzealous but surely suspect fast pacing which narrowly defeated choir and acoustic alike.

Adrian Partington not only produced some of the most finely modulated and mature singing from the joint cathedral choirs during Evensongs, but also -- through no fault of his own -- presided over what was arguably the less attractive of the two major premières of the week by this year's senior festival composer, John McCabe.

John McCabe. Photo © Peter Thompson
John McCabe. Photo © Peter Thompson

Songs of the Garden is a cantata of immense possibilities, whose positive bestiary of fauna and flora ('To Daffodils', 'The hedge-sparrow'; 'A noiseless patient spider') promised much and might be relied on, given the composer's marvellous gifts of vibrant orchestration, to offer rare aerated delights, comparable to both Mr Lucas's rendering of the Britten Spring Symphony and James Oxley's beautiful, poised readings of Schubert's emotional travelogue Die Winterreise in Holy Trinity Church, just the day before.

In some aspects it did so; in others, not quite so: despite many witty and dexterous textual juxtapositions, 'The Swallow' remained nearly as earthbound as Skelton's cleverly brass-accompanied cat; and not all of the finely managed instrumental decorations and filigrees with which McCabe, a brilliant and inspired technician -- like a medieval master plying his musical trade, or a mason working delicate stone block into seemingly stress-bearing fan vaulting -- illustrated his vivid text contrived to lighten, or indeed illuminate, as much as one eagerly expected.

The slight feeling of heaviness seemed due, in part, to a lack of text repetitions (which serve to give an audience time to relax, reflect, bask and enjoy). Its variegated panels remained determinedly independent -- rather solid, bitty, and puzzlingly grey, as if the newly orchestrated work has yet to complete a successful transition from its original incarnation for soloists, chorus, brass quintet and organ, which one would much like to hear, it perhaps offering more scope for levity.

Adrian Partington
Adrian Partington

Yet the choral singing under Mr Partington was patently well-rehearsed (with the benefit of an extra session), scrupulously precise and in many ways terrific: no signs of flagging there. 'To Daffodils', with soprano solo yielding to solo quartet, proved a veritable delight; while the Philharmonia's exquisite dying brass for Walt Whitman's patient spider ('Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul') was superb, and McCabe's inspired penultimate Whitman movement, 'Halcyon days', with its enabling woodwind touches, seemed especially fortunate.

Far more obviously a success were John McCabe's other persuasive largescale and smaller premières: particularly the UK première, the very next afternoon, of Les martinets noirs, a brilliantly conceived Concerto Grosso for two violins -- David Le Page and Cathey Leech -- and orchestra delivered in an increasingly satisfying concert by the Orchestra of the Swan under its music director David Curtis, who has pioneered an utterly admirable policy of commissioning new work and prising out the almost totally neglected old. Following some rather too stolidly legato Handel came an in all respects pleasing reading of Finzi's Romance for strings (where warm legato seems almost de rigueur); a terrific Les martinets noirs ('swifts'), or as the composer puts it, 'Pucks of the air', almost as airborne as their previous night's fellows refused to levitate. McCabe writes, engagingly, of the 'vertiginous athleticism' of the swifts he daily observes during the Kentish summer in his garden at home. In the playful causerie of the two keening violin soloists, and their striking interplay with various elements of the orchestra, he constructs a kind of fascinating aubade on a grand scale. Les martinets noirs feels as masterly in construction as it is airy and joyous to listen to.

The Orchestra of the Swan's final Concerto Grosso, that composed by Vaughan Williams in 1950, offered the chance of yet another platform for young performers: members of the orchestra's delightful and keyed-up youth academy, who fulfilled the composer's wishes with their seamless and well-tuned intertwining of the additional parts Vaughan Williams included for enthusiastic amateurs. These able Warwickshire youngsters are performers of potential, clearly with a lively future in music ahead, should they wish to pursue it. Once again, the Three Choirs has shown that it offers young people top billing.

John McCabe. Photo © Peter Thompson
John McCabe. Photo © Peter Thompson

The other John McCabe première, albeit on a smaller scale, proved equally accomplished and similarly satisfying: the world première of his choral piece Woefully array'd, sung amid a programme of Renaissance music given in St Francis Xavier Church by the brilliant emerging early music vocal consort, Stile Antico. By way of a build up, the impassioned cries of Gibbons' O Lord, in Thy wrath ('O save me') could not have been more apt, and even more so what followed: the Good Friday anthem Woefully Array'd by the great Henrician composer William Cornysh the younger. It was the anonymous Crucifixion poem set by Cornysh ('They mowid, they grynned, they scornyd me, / Condemp to death ... With paynys my vaynys constraynyd to crake ...') -- as vivid as Dunbar -- whose penitential character McCabe elected to emulate in his own modern reworking of the poem.

Somehow McCabe contrives to create modern dissonance that has a medieval flavour (yielding to unexpected consonance at the word 'lamb'), and a by turns wanly expressive and prickly treatment of the updated words which excites and involves at every turn. The introduction of a kind of medieval organum and the unexpected upward semitonal slip near the close all added to a handsomely pleasing new choral work, exquisitely followed up, in this exploration by Stile Antico of the theme of Passion and Resurrection, by another Henrician masterpiece, John Taverner's motet for Holy Saturday, Dum transisset Sabbatum.

The three Cathedral choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester under the week's other visiting conductor, Stephen Layton, Director of Music at Trinity College Cambridge and conductor of the acclaimed chamber choir Polyphony, made a valiant attempt (in the Handel 250th anniversary year) to give the latter two parts of Handel's choir-focused oratorio Israel in Egypt the kind of glitering excitement that attends (say) Deborah, the vigour of Judas Maccabaeus or Jephtha or the masterly character insight of Saul. It does indeed have a considerable dramatic power, as Simon Preston's landmark recording with the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, something of a best seller in the UK, revealed back in the 1970s.

Yet here again the mood is penitential, or at least until Egyptian languishing turns to vanquishing one's enemies and unleashes the patent vainglory of Part 3; and without Part 1 (for which Handel drew on the same music as his poignant anthem The ways of Zion do mourn) the shape is frankly puzzling. The vibrant solo writing of the last part renders the work fractionally more bracing and engaging. The solos included charming and articulate, if not fully mature contributions from the tenor and countertenor soloists, Nathan Vale (who shone in the braggadacio Pharaonic coloratura of 'The enemy said, I will pursue') and Iestyn Davies (a baroque lead singer of vast potential and now potency). Recently English National Opera's Voice of Apollo, Davies, who here too sounded agreeably Michael Chance-like, albeit looking casually like a louche character out of Spring Awakening (to disadvantage, for in the adequate but not overwhelming solos one longed for the character and polish of a Bowman or the supple appeal and refinement of a Matthew Venner); also a sizzling bass duet from Giles Underwood and Colin Campbell (where the Music for Awhile Orchestra's violins, as often, excelled); and chirrupy offerings (including a terrific finale) from The Sixteen's star, soprano Elin Manahan Thomas.

One admired the way the three cathedral choirs blazed a trail through plagues, tempests and the Red Sea: less magical than their astoundingly expressive Easter Oratorio last year, but valiant nonetheless, and finely contrasted. By way of example, their atmospheric 'He sent a thick darkness over the land' could almost be a trailer for next year's S S Wesley bicentenary; the dramatic pauses and silences in 'Thou sentest forth Thy wrath, which consumed them as stubble' were miraculous; 'I will sing unto the Lord', in the cathedral choirs' audibly vital delivery, could easily have leapt straight out of the Coronation Anthems or Messiah; longer choruses, including 'But as for his people', in which a fine altos' lead yields (in turn) to boys, tenors and basses, were competently shaped and carried off with more aplomb than longueurs; Layton took the bass-led fugue 'He led them through the deep as through a wilderness' at a broad nobilmente: clearly no panic here for the Israelites while in angustiis.

The motivation of all the boys -- not just the musically intelligent and patently committed lead boys -- was a pleasure to discern, not least in their deft, effortless and stunningly accurate coloratura in the final 'Sing ye to the Lord'. Here once more was that triple unity and professionalism one most admired about this year's Hereford Three Choirs.

And thus, full circle, to Hereford's admirable Geraint Bowen, for it was he undoubtedly who delivered the week's two chief choral triumphs.

Geraint Bowen (righ) with Adrian Partington (left), who will be Artistic Director of the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester in 2010
Geraint Bowen (righ) with Adrian Partington (left), who will be Artistic Director of the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester in 2010

The first was a masterpiece of programme-planning, setting the pace in Haydn year: not the ubiquitous Creation, but rather The Seasons, Haydn's elder statesman masterpiece, which, premièred in 1801, like Salieri's Falstaff (1799) reaches towards, or into, and effectively launched the music of the new century. Mr Bowen had already confirmed both his good judgment and Haydn credentials by including the Heiligmesse (Missa Sancti Bernardi von Offida) in its rightful liturgical space in the Festival Eucharist, in the manner of Salzburg, Eisenstadt or Vienna, and drawing vivid and vital readings from his own Hereford boys and men. But while Monday's excellently delivered Te Deum, though also dating from the crucial period of the last oratorios, sounds more like a 1770s potboiler, The Seasons may be considered, with the London symphonies and last masses, one of Haydn's most sublime utterances.

It is an eclogue, in effect: too prolonged for some, in its blithe Corydon and Mopsa (or rather here, Hanna, Simon and Lucas), pretty lasses and lads ('Mädchen, Bursche, Weiber') and children shaking nuts from the hazel tree. Its light Virgilian utterances -- its text dates back to an epic poem, also entitled The Seasons, by the Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748), Germanised by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, also the initiator of a famous Passion text set by Handel and Telemann -- verges on the comic or even (in the view of some) frivolous. Even the composer thought some of its anthropomorphic or onomatopoeic detail 'Frenchified nonsense' (what he made of Telemann's Alster Overture, with similar frog-like effects culled from Rameau and his French predecessors, is not recorded).

But this was a stupendous performance of a work that, at its enraptured heights, falls little short of a secular Benedicite, here not least because of the superb focal role performed by an impassioned James Gilchrist (Lukas), beautifully supported by soprano Gillian Keith and baritone Roderick Williams, the latter of whom had earlier in the week given a masterly lunchtime talk (without a single note) to the Finzi Friends.

The outstanding chorus contributions in this utterly delightful Seasons (lighthearted, often, but still challenging and musically demanding) were many: the sopranos and altos in the exquisite 'Sei nun gnädig, milder Himmel', which verges on the Bach motets; or the massive 'Ewiger, mächtiger, gütiger Gott!', which could be a sequence out of Fidelio or from Weber's Hermit dénouement in Der Freischütz; and the brilliant fugue 'Ehre, Lob und Preis sind Dir': secular oratorio? What secular oratorio?

Here too there were examples of marvellous camera work, as in the staging of the entries of Miss Keith, Mr Gilchrist, Mr Williams and finally the chorus, all encompassed by stages with a splendidly sympathetic, musically aware outward-panning: just one of the numerous patches in the music during the week that was enhanced for many of the audience by astute camera crews and producers. The orchestra shone too: witness the pattering pizzicato of the rain plus the dying away, in the flute, of the (equally Virgilian) summer storm, abetted by a strongly visual and audio-sensory text : 'A string of pearls adorns the meadow ... the quail is calling for his mate'; or the bassoon detail launching Part 3, 'Autumn'.

To be reminded there was then actually a moral to this enchanting farrago of village life only lent strength to both the piece and to Geraint Bowen's determination not to let this chance to perform it melt away. 'Lieben und geliebet warden, / Ist der Freuden höchste Gipfel', and later Simon's withering, Jedermann-like outburst ('Erblicke hier, betorter Mensch ..!') at mankind's money-grabbing and social climbing ('Wo sind sie nun ... die Sucht nach eitlem Ruhme, die sorgen schwere Last?' -- 'Where are they now, your lofty plans, vainglorious lust for fame, the burden of your cares?') seemed wonderfully apt for today's post-banking-crisis and MPs'-expenses-scandal-world: as John Aubrey might have said, Box about, things come back soon enough.

One marvelled, too, at the Beethoven's Ninth level of intensity Geraint Bowen elicited in the late Trio and double chorus; at the acitivities of oboe and flute in the 'Spinning Song' ('Weber, webe zart und fein'); and at the pipes and drums, fiddle and hurdy-gurdy which pepper the harvest drinking sequence and could easily, indeed, be a model for the Farewell Symphony-like exit of the peasants in Act I of Weber's opera (Haydn even has the enthusiastic ploughman whistle a snatch of his own Surprise Symphony as the spring furrows yield -- 'Schon eilet froh der Ackermann' -- to Roderick Williams' carefully measured tread. Stalin's Stakhavonites couldn't have been jollier at their work. Geraint Bowen's thrilling marshalling of Haydn's closing chorus, like much else in this scintillating Three Choirs performance, was worthy of Adám Fischer or Harnoncourt.

Praise, too, for Timothy Symons' splendidly collated and edited Three Choirs Festival Programme Book, which included the entire Haydn text in German and English and everything else one could wish for: I particularly relished the long extract on Herefordshire from Camden's Britannia: at the Three Choirs you get much more than music.

But Geraint Bowen still had a pièce de résistance up his sleeve: for his choral finale was a bicentenary performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah, which revealed the work as freshly as if it had been composed yesterday.

Matthew Brook
Matthew Brook

Chief of the evening's delights were Matthew Brook as Elijah -- Brook is a Three Choirs regular and for a decade has been one of Britain's most stupendous bass-baritones, with the power, the presence, the personality and the authority of a John Shirley-Quirk in the making; his talents have been relished by (especially) the late Richard Hickox, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Charles Mackerras, Christophe Rousset and others, and as well as appearing with many top UK, foreign and period orchestras (Philippe Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale Gent, Harry Christophers' The Sixteen, Paul McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort), he was a member of the award-winning vocal group I Fagiolini; a Hereford boy chorister, master Rory Turnbull, fourteen that very day (as the Dean, Michael Tavinor, confided to us), who, landing the plum job of the prophet's youthful acolyte, headed off to a nearby bluff to watch for rain over the parched land: 'Behold, a little cloud ariseth now from the waters: it is like a man's hand!' Master Turnbull showed not just the attentiveness but the confidence of an old hand himself: spot on the note, as rhythmically impeccable as his master.

Hereford Cathedral chorister Rory Turnbull greets the rapturous applause, with front desks of the Philharmonia Orchestra (left), mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers (centre) and (far right) soprano Sarah Fox
Hereford Cathedral chorister Rory Turnbull greets the rapturous applause, with front desks of the Philharmonia Orchestra (left), mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers (centre) and (far right) soprano Sarah Fox

Matthew Brook, who should be engaged (by someone such as Netherlands Opera) to sing Wozzeck, Bottom, Eight Songs for a Mad King and probably Wotan and the Flying Dutchman as soon as possible, produced a galaxy of vocal moods and wry faces which assured this oratorio the status of a meaty opera. As Hugh Thomas's teasingly uncomplimentary programme note suggested, it was not just in the famous set pieces ('Lord God of Abraham'; 'It is enough. O Lord, now take away my life'), which some view as cloying Victoriana or a sort of German Sullivan, that Matthew Brook excelled; he brought alive the whole dramatic panoply of Elijah, and much else on the fringes too, effortlessly outfacing monarchy and working splendid visual and vocal mischief with the hapless prophets of Baal.

Of the other soloists (Nicholas Mulroy's Obadiah a little barky: Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Jezebel was the real party piece), each did the work proud. One delighted in Sarah Fox's slyly appealing 'Hear ye, Israel!' almost as much as at the chorus's magnificent exposé of the ensuing 'Be not afraid'. Brook's 'For the mountains shall depart', with following oboe, had all the atmosphere of a Bach Cantata. No wonder, given that we owe our present admiration for Bach to Mendelssohn's reverence for, and revival of, his great Leipzig predecessor. As for Geraint Bowen, amid a positive rainbow of perspiration he simply takes it all in his stride. That's professionalism.

The end of a triumphant festival - Geraint Bowen, Adrian Lucas and Adrian Partington with the Philharmonia's outstanding cello soloist after the concluding Mendelssohn 'Elijah'
The end of a triumphant festival - Geraint Bowen, Adrian Lucas and Adrian Partington with the Philharmonia's outstanding cello soloist after the concluding Mendelssohn 'Elijah'


Copyright © 23 August 2009 Roderic Dunnett,
Cracow, Poland










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