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Three Choirs Festival 2010 (7)  - Music by Elgar, Parry, Holst and Butterworth: Amanda Roocroft (soprano); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra; Ashley Grote (organ); Adrian Partington, Gloucester Cathedral 14.8.2010 (JQ)


Sir Edward Elgar: Cockaigne (In London Town) Op. 40

Sir Hubert Parry: Ode on the Nativity

Gustav Holst: Hymn of Jesus

George Butterworth: The Banks of Green Willow

Sir Hubert Parry: I was Glad


It hardly seems eight days since the Three Choirs Festival opened and yet here we were, assembled for the final choral and orchestral concert, which offered another feast of English music. Adrian Partington opened the proceedings with Elgar’s Cockaigne overture. He began at a lively tempo before broadening nicely for the nobilmente melody. Each time this latter theme emerged Partington made sure that it was made to sing out, which I appreciated very much As in his performance of Kingdom on the opening night there were occasions when I felt that he pressed the quicker music just a little bit too much but, on the other hand, there was plenty of vigour to his performance and that’s just what this often-flamboyant piece demands. Overall it was a spirited, colourful performance, which I enjoyed very much and the cathedral organ reinforced the closing pages splendidly.

Parry’s Ode on the Nativity is an unfairly neglected piece. I believe that the late John Sanders revived it when he was Organist of Gloucester cathedral and that at that time it had scarcely been heard since it was first performed – at a Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1912. The only recording of the work – a very good one – was made by Sir David Willcocks in 1980 but had been unavailable for a long time until fairly recently (review). I got to know it properly when the choir to which I belong gave three performances of it in 1998 to mark the 150th anniversary of Parry’s birth but I wonder if it’s been performed much – or at all – since then. It’s probably not desperately fashionable these days and the choral writing, which sometimes divides into as many as eight parts, is difficult in places. Furthermore, the text, a poem by the Scots poet William Dunbar (ca 1460 – ca 1520), is rather florid and not easy to comprehend at a first reading. However, I think it’s a fine and underrated work. It has a strong melodic foundation and it’s structurally well organised. Furthermore the writing is extremely skilful, as Parry’s biographer, Jeremy Dibble, argued in his programme note.

All that said, the textures are sometimes very full when the double choir and quite large orchestra are all engaged and in a resonant building, such as Gloucester cathedral, this can lead to a degree of congestion. Despite the evident care and accuracy of the performance this wasn’t entirely avoided on this occasion.

But the performance was, nonetheless, a fine one and extremely committed. Right from the start, in shaping the lilting pastoral orchestral introduction with care and sensitivity, Adrian Partington demonstrated his engagement with the music. When the choir joined in to sing the first of Dunbar’s six stanzas, it was evident that they, like the Philharmonia, were on fine form and they sang this passage very well indeed. They were to sustain this high level of accomplishment throughout the performance.

The work includes a substantial part for a solo soprano and this was taken by Amanda Roocroft, fresh from her appearances as Eva in Welsh National Opera’s production of Die Meistersinger (review). I see that my colleagues commented on her vibrato both in the stage production and in the performance at the Promenade Concerts (review). I hadn’t read those reviews before this concert and I also noted vibrato but, to be honest, not to an extent that troubled me. In any event, Miss Roocroft probably needed to deploy vibrato to get her line across in the spacious acoustic of Gloucester cathedral. There were quite a number of occasions when it was hard to hear her singing as part of the ensemble. But actually I’m not sure that Parry intended his soloist to soar audibly over the choir and orchestra in the fully scored sections. Rather, I suspect he envisaged the solo line as an addition to the texture, albeit an important one.  I thought the touching solo passage beginning “Sinners be glad and penance do” was very well done by Miss Roocroft. Elsewhere for most of the time she was a part of the ensemble, giving a gleaming top edge to it, most notably towards the end where she rose to a thrilling top B flat.

The choir is very fully employed throughout the work. I liked the light and airy way the ladies sang the start of the fourth stanza, “Celestial fowl in the air”, and the whole choir displayed good energy at “Lay out your leaves lustily” a few minutes later. Shortly afterwards, when the chorus divided into two choirs, Parry’s complex textures were done very well, as was the majestic section, “Sing heaven imperial”. Most thrilling of all were the exultant cries of “Gloria” shortly before the music wound down to a quiet, radiant close. This was a fine revival of an unjustly neglected work and Mr Partington and his forces did Parry proud.

After the interval we heard Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. This visionary score contains some arresting harmonies and relies for maximum effect on fulfilling Holst’s instructions as to the disposition of forces. The only one of these injunctions that wasn’t obeyed was that the two choirs “if possible, should be well separated”. Well, the layout of the platform was such that this would have been completely impossible. However, Holst also enjoins “The semi-chorus should be placed above [the chorus] and well apart.” That was carried out to the letter: the semi chorus, comprising the choristers of the three cathedrals, was placed on the choir screen, mostly out of sight. Perhaps the hardest effect to achieve is that of placing a few tenors and baritones “in the distance” to sing their plainchant phrases in the Prelude. This, I think, is rarely done, if only because it deprives the main chorus of some singers. However, it was done on this occasion. The selected men sang from the north transept, behind the platform and out of sight. The effect was absolutely magical; surely just what Holst intended.

Partington’s control of the mysterious Prelude was extremely effective. A real air of suspense was generated and this meant that when the chorus began the Hymn with their great cry “Glory to Thee, Father” the effect was tremendously dramatic.

Once the Hymn itself gets going the music is full of incident and wonderful effects. Having sung the piece a couple of times in the past I know how difficult it is to bring off. Not only do the chorus have some very challenging harmonies to negotiate but also it’s also demanding to fit the parts of the two choirs together. Following in the score, I was very impressed how it all came together and with the accuracy of the performance, both in terms of rhythms and dynamics. And despite all the complexities the choir managed also to sing with great energy – at the end of a long, busy week – and commitment. I’ve been impressed by the singing of the Festival Chorus all week but I think they saved their very best until last.

And a special word of praise is due to the boys in the semi chorus, who were separately conducted by Adrian Lucas (I think – it wasn’t easy to be sure at a distance). As I’ve said, it’s hard for the main chorus to dovetail all their entries but the semi-chorus entries are more demanding still, yet everything was right on the button. And not only was their timing accurate, everything was well sung too. In short this was a superb and thrilling account of Holst’s blazing masterpiece to which the Philharmonia contributed splendidly, as did Ashley Grote, playing the important organ part.

After the excitement of the Holst,  George Butterworth’s short orchestral piece The Banks of Green Willow, took on the role of a musical sorbet. The inclusion of this piece, in a delightful performance, was a very sensible piece of musical pragmatism. It allowed the choir and the orchestral brass a bit of a breather and it also reduced the emotional temperature somewhat.

And then the grandeur of Parry brought things to a close. His splendid coronation anthem, I was Glad, originally composed for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, was heard in the expanded version that was performed at the 1911 coronation of George V. So we got the fanfares and cries of “Vivat” – all very exciting! Mr Partington led a sumptuous performance, which was the epitome of grandeur. The only very mild criticism I’d venture is that I’d have welcomed a smaller semi-chorus for the section “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” to give greater contrast. However, Parry’s magisterial piece was a resplendent conclusion to the 283rd Three Choirs Festival.

John Quinn



I hope that Adrian Partington is satisfied with the outcome of the first Three Choirs Festival that he’s directed, for he certainly should be. I’ve only been able to attend a fraction of the events – seven out of seventy-two – because the day job does tend to get in the way. But of those events all but one have been memorable for the right reasons and to judge from comments that I’ve heard many other events have been equally excellent and well received. In these straightened times it’s been encouraging to see that at every concert I’ve attended there’s been virtually a full attendance. This fine festival has brought us the usual feast of English music – and rightly so. It’s brought us some very fine solo performances and it’s seen the unveiling of an important new work in the shape of John Joubert’s An English Requiem. Everyone will have their own highlights. For me one was the singing of Roderick Williams, both in The Kingdom and, even more so, in his recital of English songs, which it was a privilege to attend. The other was Jac van Steen’s incandescent performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, which will live long in the memory.

There’s been some very fine playing by the Philharmonia Orchestra and it’s excellent news that a new three-year partnership agreement was announced between the orchestra and the Festival during the week. The Festival Chorus also contributed superbly to the success of the week. The members of the chorus undergo a vigorous rehearsal schedule over several months, which demands huge commitment from them, but though I’m sure they’re all very tired now the consistently excellent results they’ve achieved over the last few days must give them all great satisfaction.

And much credit is due to the three festival conductors, not least for their preparation of the chorus. I didn’t get to Geraint Bowen’s Mozart concert, though I’ve heard very good reports of it. Adrian Lucas’s direction of Friday night’s concert was most impressive and Adrian Partington, as well as devising the whole festival programme, has conducted all his concerts with distinction. The Three Choirs festival seems to be in three very capable pairs of hands.

And so on to Worcester in 2011. The draft programme is Worcester’s strongest for a few years and includes several enticing major events, including two important Elgar choral works, namely Gerontius and the much more rarely heard Caractacus. There’s more Mahler – his Third Symphony this time – Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem; and a concert, which, fascinatingly, will juxtapose Mozart’s Requiem and John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls. It all starts on 6 August 2011. I can’t wait. JQ


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