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Three Choirs Festival 2010  (3) - Music by Brahms, Joubert and Beethoven: Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Neal Davies (bass-baritone); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra; Ashley Grote (organ); Adrian Partington,  Gloucester Cathedral 9.8.2010 (JQ)


Brahms: Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
John Joubert: An English Requiem Op. 166 (2010) (Festival Commission. World Première)

I Intimations (Chorus) – Lento

II Prayer (Baritone) – Lento

III Judgement (Chorus) – Allegro moderato

IV Hope (Soprano) - Poco lento ma con moto

V Faith (Chorus & Boys’ Choir) – Andante

VI Solace (Tutti) - Lento
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67

For this year’s Festival a major new work had been commissioned from John Joubert (b. 1927). Indeed, he has been made Composer in Residence at the Festival and several of his smaller scale works are also being performed.

It was an interesting little touch to programme an orchestral work by Brahms alongside the Joubert. Though the Academic Festival Overture is of a completely different character it served as a link to the composer of Ein Deutsches Requiem. Joubert wrote in his programme note that the inspiration for the new work – before or after the receipt of the commission, I wonder? – was a suggestion by Nicholas Fisher that Joubert should write a work using a similar idea to Brahms, namely “a succession of meditations on the subject of death rather than a setting of the Latin liturgical text.” At Joubert’s invitation, Fisher compiled for him a text utilising passages from both the Old and the New Testaments in the New Revised Standard Version.

The work is scored for two soloists, SATB chorus and a separate boys’ choir. The orchestration is colourful but not excessive – triple wind; 4 horns; 3 each of trumpets and trombones; tuba; timpani & 2 percussion; harp, organ & strings. The work is cast in six movements and I’ve included the details in the heading to this review. As the composer wrote in his note the movements “proceed from the earliest premonition of death towards a realisation of its ultimate inevitability – and hope.” My own impression, if I may be so bold, is that the music proceeds from fear of, and resistance to, death through to acceptance and, as the composer says, hope.

The piece opens in mysterious darkness; a single tolling bell is frequently heard during the movement. The music is darkly dramatic – the sense of drama is there whether the music is loud or soft. There’s a good deal of astringent – and highly effective – writing for the woodwind. The choral writing is largely homophonic and creates great tension, though this only erupts into one significant climax – and then relatively briefly – at the words “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away”. The final words in this section – “blessed be the name of the Lord” – are set to more accepting harmony and the music dies away in the orchestra. A most impressive start.

The second movement is for the baritone soloist. Joubert had the happy idea of associating each vocal soloist with a solo instrument in the orchestra – each one adroitly chosen as an apt partner for the respective voice, So the baritone is paired with solo horn and later an oboe is the partner for the soprano. The baritone’s music is quietly impassioned at the start but before long Joubert increases the tension and, while maintaining the same pulse, injects pace through the use of shorter note values. The music is very challenging and has more than a touch of bitterness to it, though it also taps a vein of eloquence. It’s also very demanding music – both emotionally and musically – and the voice part describes nearly two full octaves up to top F. I thought Neal Davies was very impressive, bringing all his operatic experience to bear and even when the tessitura was at its most taxing he never sacrificed his tone.

The third movement, in Joubert’s words, “confronts us with the idea of judgement and its concomitant emotions, fear and guilt.” Much is made of pounding drums and frightening orchestral fanfares. This is a really turbulent movement, taxing for the chorus. At the words “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Joubert launches a fugue. The subject is quite lengthy and melodically far from straightforward, including some very demanding intervals, and the working out of the fugue is very complex. I was full of admiration for the confidence with which the choir sang this very difficult, powerful music. A huge climax is achieved at the words “We will all stand before the judgement seat of God” and then there’s a final desperate plea, “Forgive us for your name’s sake”, set to the fugue subject but sung by the whole choir in unison. This movement contains some frightening music but it was sung with the necessary energy and made a huge impact.

In the fourth movement – for solo soprano, with an important for her partnering oboe – the mood starts to become more positive. But this positivity is hard won. The movement is really a plea for salvation. I’d never previously heard Carolyn Sampson sing other than baroque music but she was absolutely the right choice for this part. She was as excellent as Neal Davies had been earlier. Like him she maintained her tonal quality no matter how demanding the tessitura – and Joubert does stretch his soloist, taking her up to a top C flat at one point. Much of the music is highly charged – and Miss Sampson’s singing was tremendously committed and eloquent – but, in line with the words, the mood softens at “I will lift my eyes to the hills” and even more so a few bars later at “My help comes from the Lord”. Right at the end Miss Sampson placed her last note, a top B flat, most beautifully.

The boys’ chorus – singing from the choir screen above and behind all the other performers – joined in from the fifth movement onwards. To be truthful, it wasn’t always easy to hear them. I suspect that, given the choral and orchestral forces involved, a larger group of boys would be ideal but there probably was no room for any more singers here. The fifth movement includes another far from easy fugue. This fugue, the subject of which is a very memorable melody, is unaccompanied and when it first appears it’s for semi chorus – on this occasion the Gloucester section of the choir. Later on the fugue reappears and the whole choir gets a go. The words of the fugue are “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”. We couldn’t be further from Stainer! The tune is not only an excellent subject for a fugue, it’s also optimistic in tone and in this movement one feels that, emotionally, the work really has turned the corner. This movement has some big climaxes but here they are fervent, even ecstatic, rather than dark and powerful as had been the case in earlier movements.

The final movement brings together all the forces for the first and only time. It begins with a passage for each vocal soloist – and their instrumental partner - and theirs is music of consolation and acceptance. The chorus joins in and a complex ensemble is constructed until a substantial climax of conviction is reached at “So whether we live or whether we die we belong to the Lord”. After this the baritone and soprano soloists are heard again, singing lyrical, gentle lines, their melodies enhanced by an accompaniment in which the harp and a radiant violin solo are prominent. The ending is subdued and pacific.

John Joubert has written a most impressive and eloquent work. Nicholas Fisher chose some fine, resonantly meaningful words for him to set and Joubert has written music that’s worthy of the sentiments expressed in the text. Through the kindness of a friend, a member of the chorus, I was able to borrow a copy of the score to follow the performance and it was evident how accurately the performers followed the composer’s wishes. The choir was superb, meeting every one of Joubert’s considerable demands and surmounting the challenges, while I have nothing but praise for the excellent soloists. The Philharmonia’s playing must have delighted the composer. Adrian Partington clearly believes in the score and his conducting was first rate in every way, drawing a performance of great conviction from everyone on the platform. John Joubert was present to receive an extremely warm and well-deserved ovation.

To their shame the BBC were conspicuous by their absence. You might have thought that the first performance of a major work by one of our senior composers would have drawn them to record the performance for future transmission. Sadly, however, the piece is denied, at least for now, dissemination to a wider audience.

This is the second première of a work for chorus and orchestra by Joubert that I’ve attended. Way back in 1967 he wrote The Choir Invisible, Op. 54 (details here) for the 150th anniversary of the Halifax Choral Society. I’m afraid I don’t remember a great deal about the piece, which I seem to recall Joubert himself conducted – I was only fifteen at the time – and I wonder how many subsequent performances there have been. I sincerely hope that if The Choir Invisible has indeed fallen into neglect a similar fate will not await An English Requiem. The quality of the piece is far too good for that to happen. Though the piece is demanding – and won’t be cheap to stage – I hope other choirs will take it up and I noted with interest the presence in the audience of the conductor of one crack provincial choir. I hope also that Adrian Partington will be encouraged to direct it again, if not immediately in Gloucester then perhaps with the choirs he directs either in Cardiff or Bristol.

It was a shrewd move to programme music by Brahms and Beethoven alongside this première. For one thing the inclusion of familiar music may have encouraged people to come – and I’m all for that. Also, the fact that the works will have been so familiar to the orchestra probably benefited the rehearsal schedule – though neither work sounded in the least bit under rehearsed. The Brahms was enjoyable and lively and Mr Partington permitted himself a small coup. At the very end, when Brahms brings in the song ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ the chorus leapt to their feet and sang the song. Completely inauthentic, I’m sure, but why not? It was a nice touch and added to the enjoyment.

As for the Beethoven symphony, well it may be one of the most frequently played of symphonies but it’s not been heard all that often at Three Choirs. Anthony Boden’s authoritative history of the Festival lists only six performances up to the early 1990s, the last of them in 1938, and if it’s been done more than once since then I’m not aware of it. So a revival was overdue. Adrian Partington led a strong, purposeful account of it. The Philharmonia responded to his direction with some sharply characterised, rhythmic playing.

I hope I’ll be forgiven if I say no more about the Beethoven or Brahms pieces. I don’t mean to diminish either of these classic repertoire works, still less the fine performances they received on this occasion. However, both works have been written about many times down the years and it’s only fair that John Joubert’s fine new work should take centre stage in this notice. He has produced an important new piece and I hope to have the chance to hear it again soon.

John Quinn

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