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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Three Choirs Festival (6) : Mahler  Eighth Symphony, Judith Howarth (soprano), Janice Watson (soprano), Gillian Keith (soprano), Sarah Connolly (mezzo soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone), Stephen Richardson (bass); Festival Chorus; Choristers; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Andrew Nethsingha Gloucester Cathedral, 11.8. 2007 (JPr)


Unlike my colleague John Quinn, this concert was only my second ever foray to the Three Choirs Festival,  held as I am sure readers of John's reviews know,  for a week each  August and shared between the cathedrals of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester. The festival concentrates on the large-scale choral repertoire featuring the Festival Chorus made up of an ensemble comprising the Lay  Clerks (and occasionally the boys) of the three individual cathedral choirs augmented by members of local choral societies from the three Festival cities.  Many other major ensembles and distinguished soloists are involved too but much of the musical programme retains the  ecclesiastical quality of its early years, now mixed and matched with the works of British composers, including some whose careers are closely associated with the Three Choirs Festival.  Pre-eminent amongst these are Vaughan Williams, Delius, Holst and, of course, Elgar.

My genuine surprise was hearing and reading about how old the festival is and this must have passed me by the only other time I was there. The first recognised one was held in 1715 and publicity for it in 1719, addressed ‘Members of the yearly Musical Assembly in these parts’. Over the years it developed into two day events before settling into its current format. The only interruptions have been caused by the two World Wars.

I was last in Gloucester for a Three Choirs foray into Wagner when they performed some extracts from Parsifal in 1998.  Now I was back for a fairly rare performance of music by his  ‘disciple’, Mahler. The performance of course was a sell-out.

The Mahler performed as this year’s festival director Andrew Nethsingha’s farewell to Gloucester (before taking up a post at St John’s College, Cambridge) was an ambitious attempt at the Eighth Symphony (‘Symphony of a Thousand’). The chorus was banked up high at the end of the Nave and left a cramped area for the resident orchestra who this year was the always reliable Philharmonia. Naturally, the reduced orchestration was used and this I suppose cuts down on strings and brass from the massive vocal and instrumental forces required in Mahler’s score of eight soloists (3 sopranos, 2 altos, tenor, baritone, bass), a children's chorus, and mixed double chorus.    Even so, the cut-down numbers spilled into the North and South Transepts. The soloists made up an impressive array of artists of international renown; Judith Howarth, Janice Watson, Gillian Keith (sopranos), Sarah Connolly and Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzos), Adrian Thompson (tenor), Alan Opie (baritone) and Stephen Richardson (bass).

Before assessing the performance I would like to draw  on more  thoughts from David Matthews writings in  ‘Mahler and Parsifal’ which are very pertinent to the Eighth Symphony. He writes: ‘The idea that a man can be redeemed by a woman’s self-sacrificing love is, of course, central to Wagner’s operas; it is also an idea that Mahler, as a Wagnerian Romantic, was only too willing to adopt. It was quite natural for him to cast Alma in a symbolic role (a role she was less able to play than Cosima Wagner). For both Wagner and Mahler, the idea has a common origin in Goethe’s Faust, and it was to the last scene of Faust that Mahler turned when, in his Eighth Symphony, he sought to combine the religious aspiration of his earlier symphonies with the human aspiration of the middle-period works in a huge synthesis … Mahler’s conception here of human sexual love as a spiritual force is very different from the orthodox Christian view presented in Parsifal, that redemption is only possible through ascetic self-denial … the conception of the Finale is quasi-operatic and is the nearest Mahler got to writing a Parsifal of his own’.

The printed Three Choirs Festival programme  told the international audience - the Festival attracts visitors from all over the world -  little about any of  this. It's a compendium programme of course, covering all the concerts given during festival week which  precludes too much detail but  with Mahler, as with Wagner, there are  always other stories to tell.

As for the performance it is more than likely that with large numbers involved there is a good chance things may go wrong. Under Andrew Nethsingha’s metronomic baton the symphony raced by possibly coming in well under 80 minutes. I don’t know whether it was my seat or whether I was getting acclimatised to the acoustics but whilst everyone was on a page of the score during the early minutes I am not certain it was the same one. The first movement seemed to whip along at a more impetuous Allegro than the composer intended bringing its own problems of ensemble and intonation. This movement rushed to its end.

Mahler's description of this symphony as one where ‘the experience of the music should be overwhelming, it should leave you feeling, however briefly, that this is unquestionably the greatest piece of music ever written’ was met more by the second movement which created a greater sense of atmosphere, this heightened mystery brought about mainly by the sparer orchestration here, it all slows down a little in places and so there is more spirituality evident but not that much was allowed as the race to the end of the work always seemed to be pursued to everyone’s disadvantage. The orchestra didn’t seem to be concerned with any intricate details or invest their playing with much real feeling but they were never less than a competent accompaniment to an often exciting wall-of-sound from the Festival Chorus and Choristers.

The soloists seemed under pressure throughout with some occasional straining and stentorian delivery. It was Janice Watson’s (Una Poenitentium) that suffered most towards the end but they were all vastly experienced. Gillian Keith’s voice soared sweetly from on high as the ‘Mater Gloriosa’, Catherine Wyn-Rogers was her always reliable self as ‘Maria Aegyptiaca’ making light work of what others find difficult, Adrian Thompson radiantly invoked the Eternal Feminine and Sarah Connolly’s ‘Mulier Samaritana’ also deserves special mention for controlled resonant singing.

Andrew Nethsingha relentlessly urged on his forces even when some of the music called for a little restraint. His was a wonderful achievement undoubtedly but that of an ardent enthusiast, rather than someone steeped in Mahler. It was obvious that another rehearsal or two might have helped communication enormously and have removed any number of seemingly ragged entrances. It was so loud most of the time too that there was nowhere really to go in the final crescendo but he seemed to engender the necessary excitement to bring the audience to their feet.  Mahler won in the end …though seemingly against the odds.


Jim Pritchard

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