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SEEN AND HEARD
Three Choirs Festival 2010 (5) - Music by Gurney, Elgar and Finzi: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); James Gilchrist (tenor); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra; Christopher Allsop (organ); Adrian Lucas, Gloucester Cathedral 13.8.2010 (JQ)
Ivor Gurney: The Trumpet (orchestrated by Philip Lancaster)
Sir Edward Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 37
Gerald Finzi: Intimations of Immortality, Op. 29
This might be described as a quintessential Three Choirs programme, containing as it did major vocal works by Elgar and Finzi. It opened with a novelty – and a première – in the shape of Ivor Gurney’s The Trumpet. This setting of a poem by Edward Thomas is not to be confused with the setting for solo voice, which in the words of his biographer, Michael Hurd, was “wrung out of him in 1925” and which became the final song in the collection Lights Out, published the following year. (Lights Out has recently appeared, finely sung by Roderick Williams, in a new orchestral version by Jeremy Dibble – Dutton Epoch CDLX 7243.) What we heard in this concert was a completely different setting for chorus, composed in 1921. This, apparently, was its first professional performance and it was given in an orchestration by Philip Lancaster. Since Gurney left scarcely any orchestral music the question of how he might have scored The Trumpet is a matter for conjecture but I thought Philip Lancaster’s orchestration sounded effective and convincing.
The piece lasts for about six minutes. It starts confidently and the choir made a good impact though, from my seat in the rear half of the cathedral, the clarity of the words was somewhat blunted by the distance from the platform and by the acoustic. Lancaster’s orchestration included some fine, sweeping lines for strings and some emphatic contributions from the brass section. The music relaxes into a more lyrical central section, which put me in mind to some extent of Vaughan Williams or even early Delius. The strong ending arrived rather suddenly. I’d like to hear this setting again, preferably in a less resonant acoustic, and I hope Dutton Epoch will consider it for one of their future invaluable CDs of neglected English music. On the Sunday following the performance, as I began to type up this review, I was interested to find a blog by Philip Lancaster in which he gives his reactions to the performance on the morning after the night before.
The rest of the programme contained rather more familiar fare, not least Sea Pictures, in which the soloist was Sarah Connolly. I’ve heard her sing the work live before – at the Cheltenham Festival in 2007 (review) - and she’s also made a very fine CD of the work (review), set down in 2006, so expectations were high on this occasion. I must say at once that I enjoyed the performance very much but I’m not sure that Miss Connolly was quite at her best. A friend of mine, an experienced singer, who has sung Sea Pictures and knows it very well and who was seated much closer to the platform than I was, noticed several small mistakes over the words and wondered if Miss Connolly was completely at ease. These small slips, which weren’t as apparent further back in the building, are surprising since she must know the score intimately. However, it does show that, even for the finest artist, there are risks in performing in concert without a copy. I’m not quite sure why it’s come to be taken for granted that a concert artist should perform from memory – and I suppose that opera singers perforce have so to do – but I for one have no difficulty with an artist using a copy; most of them would need it only occasionally as a source of reference in any case.
Miss Connolly sang with warm tone and the sound was well projected. There was just as much pleasure to be had from the accompaniment under Adrian Lucas’s sure-footed direction. In contrast to what we’d experienced three nights earlier, here we had a conductor who, even if his name is less stellar, knows how to bring out the detail in an orchestra – I loved the touches of harp and gentle bass drum in the first song, for instance. More importantly, Lucas understands the Elgar idiom and he let the music flow naturally, while being attentive to Elgar’s copious directions as to tempo modification. The second song, ‘In Haven’, was the most successful of all, I think. The accompaniment was delicately etched in and Sarah Connolly sang an excellent line. There was much to admire also in ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, where the singer’s upper register is tested more than in the first two songs. The singing had a good deal of expression and I liked the deep, rich bass in the accompaniment. The one disappointment was that though I’m pretty certain the optional organ part was being played in this song, and in the last one, the sound of the instrument didn’t come across. Nonetheless “He shall assist me to look higher” was suitably majestic.
The final song, ‘The Swimmer’, is the biggest piece, in which Elgar combines the turbulence of the ocean with touches of nobility. Miss Connolly’s voice rode the orchestral waves well and this strong finish brought an inevitable – and deserved – ovation for this popular singer. At several points during the performance I could hear from outside the noise of the seagulls with which Gloucester is plagued these days; but for once their cries seemed entirely appropriate in the background.
Gerald Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality was first performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs of 1950, so this was its sixtieth anniversary performance. The première had been conducted by Herbert Sumsion and the tenor soloist was Eric Greene. For this performance the Festival engaged James Gilchrist to sing the solo role. This was a splendid choice for, in my opinion, there is no singer before the public today better equipped to sing this music than Gilchrist, who made a fine recording of it in 2005 (review). To my ears his clear voice, which is essentially light but which has a touch of steel in it when required, is ideal for Finzi’s music and in my experience the only singer who surpasses Gilchrist in Intimations is the incomparable Ian Partridge on the work’s first recording, which was made under Vernon Handley (review).
I should say at the outset that I love Intimations, which contains some exciting stretches of music and, more importantly, many passages of melting beauty. It can be a very moving work to listen to – as it was on this occasion. It was a pleasure to hear it live in such a committed and fine performance as this one. However, concert performances of the work are pretty rare – one is unlikely to encounter it often outside Three Choirs, to be honest – and so most people are likely to get to know it through the medium of recordings, of which there have been four to date, all of them well worth hearing. Despite its many excellent features, however, this performance showed the dangers of relying on recordings for an appreciation of a work. Though Adrian Lucas had clearly worked hard in preparing the performance, not least in terms of achieving balance, quite a bit of clarity – as compared with a recording, anyway – was lost in the resonance of the cathedral. In particular it was not always easy to hear the choir’s words from where I was sitting and that’s a particular handicap when the text is as complex and as full of imagery as the Ode by Wordsworth that Finzi chose to set. And here the Festival programme editors must come in for a little bit of criticism. The programme book – all 274 pages of it – is a splendid and comprehensive publication but on this occasion the editors faltered. Finzi omitted two stanzas of Wordsworth’s Ode – numbers seven and eight – as was made clear in Diana McVeagh’s authoritative programme note. But in the programme the full text was printed and the stanzas were unnumbered. This meant that anyone unfamiliar with the piece and trying to follow the words would have struggled to find the place in the middle of the work unless they could hear the sung text with complete clarity.
In part the lack of clarity was due to the resonance of the acoustic. Though the piece was first heard in this very building I’m not sure that Finzi wrote it in the expectation that it would be performed in such an acoustic. My understanding is that much of the piece was at least drafted in the 1930s but completion of the work was delayed for many years until the stimulus of a Three Choirs performance came along. In a number of places either Finzi’s choral writing or his orchestration – or both – is pretty rich and this richness of texture was a problem sometimes during this performance. That’s something for which the conductor and performers can’t really be blamed. Indeed, for all the colour and excitement of the orchestration I came away from the performance wondering if Finzi might have been better advised to score the piece more lightly, especially in the brass and percussion departments.
It must also be said that, for all its many beauties, Intimations is an extremely ambitious score. In fact this and the Cello Concerto were, by some distance, Finzi’s largest scale compositions. I don’t hold with the notion that Finzi was essentially a miniaturist – Dies Natalis and the Clarinet Concerto surely disprove that - but I do wonder if he overreached himself somewhat with Intimations. Though Adrian Lucas conducted the piece very positively the music did seem to lose some focus during the ninth and longest stanza, ‘O joy! that in our embers’. I think that the score might have benefited had Finzi been a bit more concise, omitting a little more of Wordsworth’s ext and bringing the score’s duration down to about thirty-five minutes.
But he didn’t, of course, so one must judge the performance of the complete score and it was a very good one. Adrian Lucas conducted with complete conviction and with sureness of touch, obtaining some excellent and responsive playing from the Philharmonia – and one must reflect that this is a score which they won’t come across very often. His shaping of the atmospheric orchestral prelude was highly effective and very sympathetic. Later on he achieved an exciting build up to the third stanza – ‘Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song’ – and in that stanza, having ensured vigorous momentum, he secured a particularly enthusiastic response from the choir, leading to an exciting climax towards the end of that section.
A further instance of the choir’s impressive contribution came later at “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting” (Stanza V), where the attention to quiet dynamics by choir and orchestra was very pleasing. And the very end of the work was beautifully – and poetically – managed.
James Gilchrist was as excellent as I hoped he’d be. It wasn’t always easy to hear him against the full choir and orchestra – for example in the important passage beginning at “O evil day” (stanza IV). But just a few moments later, at “And the children are Culling on every side”, Finzi lightens the texture significantly and we were able fully to appreciate Gilchrist’s fine, subtle singing. He sang with real eloquence at “Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own” (Stanza VI) – one of many instances where one felt the timbre of his voice is ideally suited to this music. Perhaps best of all was his singing in two key passages. His very first solo, “There was a time”, was easily and plangently floated but he reserved his very best, I thought, for the final stanza. “And O, ye fountains” is a quintessential bit of Finzi and Gilchrist sang it most affectingly. Just a few moments later, at “I love the brooks”, there was a marvellous lilt in his delivery and then he sang “Another race hath been” with great conviction. At this point, and elsewhere, his use of head voice was exquisite and his top notes throughout the performance, whether soft or loud, were thrilling.
This was a fine and genuinely moving performance of Intimations of Immortality. Much though I love the piece I do think it has its uneven aspects, which is probably one reason why it hasn’t established a secure place in the repertoire. Another reason must surely be that its difficulties – and the expense of the large orchestra – make choral societies thoughtful about staging it. That’s a great shame because the very attentive and enthusiastic audience clearly enjoyed it and the Festival Chorus proved that with a bit of hard work a fine performance is certainly achievable. It must be at least fifteen years since I last heard a live performance of Intimations – also at Three Choirs. I hope I don’t have to wait as long to experience it again but this excellent account of it will sustain me for a while to come.