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Seen and Heard Festival Review


Three Choirs Festival: Knussen, Delius and Vaughan Williams, Tasmin Little (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Richard Hickox, Gloucester Cathedral, 8th August, 2004 (CT)


Sitting in the glorious surroundings of Gloucester Cathedral it is impossible not to sense the history that surrounds this great festival. The names that have been closely associated with it are still clearly reflected in much of the programming. Elgar, Howells, Finzi, Vaughan Williams and even Camille Saint-Saëns whose presence as guest of honour at the 1913 festival in Gloucester is recorded in a famous photograph, seated alongside Elgar himself and celebrated during this year’s festival with a performance of his Organ Symphony. Yet the festival’s roots go back a great deal further than this. Incredibly this is the 277th Three Choirs Festival – a feat that surely makes it both a national treasure and an institution.


In many ways little has changed. In addition to the abundance of music celebrating the English choral tradition this year sees major works by Bach, Haydn, Brahms, Faure and an abundance of chamber recitals. Yet a notable but balanced accent on British music remains with the 2004 composer in residence, John McCabe, joined by amongst others, Robert Saxton, David Matthews, James Francis Brown, Judith Bingham, Adrian Williams and Patrick Gowers.


I have a suspicion that music by Oliver Knussen nestling alongside Delius’s Violin Concerto may well be a programming experience new to concert goers, yet both works could hardly have been better chosen for the acoustics of this most atmospheric of cathedrals. Knussen’s Choral (not in fact "a new choral work by Oliver Knussen" as I saw it referred to in a certain item of festival literature) was written largely in 1970 when the composer was only eighteen. As is typical of Knussen however, whose painful labours over his works are well known, the work was not completed for another two years. The scoring is worthy of note. Wind, percussion and double basses (no other strings) give a fascinating world of sound, especially when treated with Knussen’s phenomenal ear for colour and detail. The composer describes the piece as "a sort of Ivesian vision in which I saw several funeral processions converging on a point in the distance." From an eerie, distant opening of glissandi trombones he creates a ritual like processional that although centred around just four basic chords, grows gradually more elaborate whilst retaining a constant, slow funereal pulse. Resonance is a vital part of the piece. Knussen has said that he spends many hours during the course of composition ensuring that he is happy with way harmonies overlap in his music and in the spacious acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral this could be heard to the full. Anyone familiar with the composer’s Third Symphony, which was to follow not many years after Choral, will possibly have noticed the harmonic pre-echoes of the latter work in the closing moments of the piece. Not a conventional concert opener perhaps but Hickox and the Philharmonia’s carefully wrought performance got things off to a strong start.


Tasmin Little’s advocacy of the Delius Violin Concerto in recent years, including a CD recording of the work, no doubt made her an obvious choice to perform the work at the Three Choirs. And deservedly so, for here she brought a freshness to the music that is essential to Delius if the music is to breathe in the way that it needs. More rhapsody than concerto, this essentially lyrical piece is cast in one unbroken span, and it was in the passages that allow the instrument to sing that Little was at her best. Unfortunately this could have been partly due to the fact that my seat at the side of the orchestra (and the wrong side of the soloist) meant that some of the solo detail in the more heavily scored passages was partly obscured by the orchestra. That said the lushness of the orchestral sound was luxurious and matched by the eloquence of Little’s playing, the performance made a convincing case for the concerto’s place in the repertoire.


The second half was given over to Vaughan Williams and a performance of the original 1913 version of his London Symphony. It was Richard Hickox’s persuasive premiere recording of this version with the London Symphony Orchestra that made it the recipient of the 2001 Gramophone Recording of the year. Stephen Connock, the chairman of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, initially took to the stage to present Richard Hickox with a bronze plaque in recognition of his advocacy of VW’s music over the years. With the bronze having been donated by the composer’s widow, Ursula, the occasion was all the more meaningful for her presence in the audience. A clearly appreciative Hickox threw every ounce of his sincerity and energy into the ensuing performance, atmospheric from the outset and played with genuine passion by the Philharmonia. The composer’s three revisions of the piece all stemmed from his belief (fuelled by comments from friends) that the symphony was simply too cumbersome in its initial form. It is true to say that the original is somewhat sprawling in comparison to the version we have come to know but the quality of the music the composer removed is immediately evident and shone through in this performance. The slow movement was imbued with a feeling of twilit mystery and sadness for a London that is lost, the scherzo wonderfully fluent and bustling with life. It was a shame that the acoustic did cause the players some difficulty in the quicker passages, a fact borne out by Hickox’s occasional sideways glances at the lower strings who were manful in their attempts to maintain rhythmic clarity although not always successfully. Such was the strength of the interpretation however, such vagaries were not to distract from Hickox’s commanding vision of the score. More evidence, if it were needed, that he and Vernon Handley are unsurpassed amongst modern conductors in their understanding of the composer’s music.


To paraphrase VW’s own affectionate tribute to John Barbirolli, to whom Hickox has proved a natural heir in his dedication to his cause, Glorious Richard…. Glorious Ralph.


Christopher Thomas









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