A Disappointing Première at the Three Choirs Festival
August 1, 2014
United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (7) Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Rasch; Matthew Trusler (violin), Yeree Suh (soprano), Peter Hoare (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Choristers of the Three Cathedral Choirs, Singers from Die Kantorei der Kreuzkirche, Chemnitz, Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Baldur Brönimann (conductor), Worcester Cathedral, 31.7.2014 (JQ)
Reflections of 1914
Elgar – The Spirit of England
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
Torsten Rasch – A Foreign Field (world première)
It is entirely understandable that Peter Nardone has put some emphasis on the commemoration of the centenary of World War I in his Three Choirs Festival programme this year though the centenary has been marked in a suitably proportionate way and not overdone. This evening’s concert, however, put the centenary centre stage, including as it did the Festival’s big commission.
Torsten Racsh was born in Dresden in 1965 and, as a boy, was a member of the celebrated Dresdner Kreuzchor. In 1990 he moved to Japan – I’m not sure if he still resides there – where he pursued a flourishing career as a composer of music for films and TV. He also has a good number of concert works to his credit as well as two operas. The commission of A Foreign Field is an Anglo-German joint venture between the Three Choirs Festival and the Städitsche Theater Chemnitz, Erich Schellhorn-Stiftung. It was good to welcome some singers from Chemnitz to take part in the première; I understand a Three Choirs contingent will travel to Chemnitz to take part in the work’s second performance next March.
I’m unsure whether the initial stimulus for the commission came from the UK or from Germany but Rasch paid more than one gracious compliment to Three Choirs country in fashioning his work. The most obvious way in which he did this was by selecting lines from poems by locally-based poets as a key element in the texts of A Foreign Field. More subtly, Rasch took the framework of the Anglican service of Evensong as the basic structure for the score, having experienced the service for the first time in Gloucester Cathedral when visiting the city prior to starting work on his new work. Thus the sections into which A Foreign Field is divided are entitled Introit – Part I: Echoes – Part II: Canticles, including an Antiphon and a Psalm – Part III: Et in Arcardia ego.
Rasch draws his text from a variety of sources. The Book of Psalms is an important source, the words sung in Latin, and there are also some verses from the Book of Lamentations. Rightly, there also some German texts – by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and by the Austrian poet, Georg Trakl (1887-1914), who died in a fit of depression while on active service. Most poignantly of all, at the start of Part II the boys’ choir sings several times the words ‘Müssen wir jetzt alle sterben?’ (‘Must we all die now?’), said by a small boy to his mother as they took refuge in a Chemnitz air raid shelter during a 1945 Allied bombing raid. But the key element among the texts is a selection of lines written by Edward Thomas (1878-1917).
Thomas was a leading member of a literary circle, the Dymock Poets, some of who lived in and around the Gloucestershire village of Dymock in the years immediately prior to World War I. Other members of the group included Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) and the American, Robert Frost. Lines from several of Thomas’s poems and one by Rupert Brooke are set by Rasch: both of these poets perished during the war while on active service. In fact Part II of the work is inspired by the last night that Thomas and his wife, Helen, spent together before his departure for France. Though he was a Gloucester man Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was not part of the Dymock Poets circle – though he set several poems by Thomas to music – yet the inclusion of some lines from his poem Requiem near the beginning of the work and again towards its end feels right.
Torsten Rasch has said that the subject of A Foreign Field is the evening before the world fell into the night and darkness of war. However, he was emphatic in his intention not to write a conventional Requiem: ‘I don’t want only to mourn the dead but to celebrate life as well.’
I confess that I had not heard either of Rasch or his music before this commission was unveiled at the 2013 Three Choirs Festival at which I heard baritone Roderick Williams sing four of his songs in recital (review). Williams, an enthusiastic advocate of contemporary music, was engaged to sing the baritone solos tonight. The score also calls for a soprano solo, boys’ choir, chorus and orchestra. Its sections play continuously and though the score suggests a duration of about 43 minutes this first performance played for about 50 minutes. The orchestral scoring calls for triple woodwind, including some doubling, four horns, 3 each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, harp, celeste , timpani and strings. In addition a vast array of percussion clearly keeps three players fully occupied.
The Introit at the beginning started quite promisingly, in a subdued vein, with some atmospheric and intriguing orchestral sonorities and interesting choral writing. However, in Part I it was not long before what was to be a feature of much of the work became apparent as the brass and heavyweight percussion made their presence all too obvious. I may as well cut to the chase and say that the major problem I have with A Foreign Field at a first hearing is that it is far too heavily scored. Time and again the singers were all but drowned by the busy and loud accompaniment – an accompaniment, moreover, that often seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to the vocal parts.
There were several occasions when the dynamics were quieter and here Rasch revealed a genuine talent for beguiling orchestral textures – the very opening, the passage for soft strings and tuned percussion after the baritone’s first solo and the quiet, glittering accompaniment for the choir’s closing phrases were prime examples. Far too often, however, the orchestral parts were loud, even aggressive. I could understand this at times, for example at the start of Part III which is, clearly, a graphic – and effective – aural image of troops going over the top into the heat of battle. But there was simply too much scoring of this nature. The quieter passages were sufficient to persuade me that if Rasch were to revise the score, thinning down the orchestration then we would be left with a much more effective work. I doubt this will happen, though, because I’m sure he’s scored the work on the basis of instrumental colour and would be loath to sacrifice colours.
With so much going on in the orchestra I was surprised that I could make out quite a lot of the words: all credit to the singers for achieving this. The two soloists were truly excellent. Roderick Williams is a seasoned singer and his artistry is well known. I had not heard the soprano, Yeree Su before but I was seriously impressed with the purity and clarity of her voice, even when the writing took her to the bottom of her register, and also by her evident commitment. The chorus sang their demanding music with assurance and commitment. Nowhere were they more successful than in what was, for me, the highlight of the piece. This is the extended setting of Psalm 91for unaccompanied choir, sometimes divided into five or six parts. This closes Part I. The choir sang this superbly; indeed, this was perhaps the best singing I’ve heard from the excellent Festival Chorus this week. I could easily see this fine, eloquent music evolving into a separate anthem; in that format I think it would be very successful. The boys’ choir sang heroically. How they picked out their notes at the start of some passages I simply don’t know but they made a most effective contribution.
Reflecting later on what I’d heard, I came to the conclusion that my acute disappointment with A Foreign Field is twofold. One is the issue of the scoring. The other is the response of Torsten Rasch to his chosen texts. I’d been careful to do my homework beforehand, reading not only the text but also comments that Mr Rasch had made about the work in advance. One comment, which I’ve already mentioned, had particularly struck me: that he didn’t ‘want only to mourn the dead but to celebrate life as well.’ This had led me to expect more lyrical music than I heard. Inevitably this is a subjective reaction but I didn’t hear much tonight that struck me as celebratory. In particular Part II disappointed me. Described as the core of the work – though it’s relatively short in duration – this is inspired by the last night that Edward Thomas and his wife spent together before he left for France. There was ardour here – unsurprisingly – but what I missed was any suggestion of tenderness. Naturally, any two people will have different responses to a set of words but often in this score I didn’t feel attracted to or in sympathy with Torsten Rasch’s responses to the poems he had chosen.
The first half featured more familiar Three Choirs fare in the shape of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. It’s a complete mystery to me why The Spirit of England is the least frequently heard of his mature choral works for it contains much fine and moving music. Laurence Binyon’s poems may not convey the horror of war in the graphic way that poets such as Owen and Sassoon did. However, it must be remembered that, unlike them, Binyon was not a serving soldier – he was too old – and the poems that Elgar set were written in the first few months of the conflict before its horrors became apparent to those on the Home Front. In any event, despite what some might see as their ‘shortcomings relative to the work of other war poets, some of Binyon’s lines, set by Elgar in the last movement of this work, have achieved their own immortality (‘They shall grow not old…’)
The performance contained a major surprise in that the solo role was sung by the tenor, Peter Hoare. Seeing his name in the programme I had assumed he was to sing the middle movement, ‘To Women’. I’ve taken part in some performances in which the role has been split in this way with a soprano as soloist in the outer movements and this is the arrangement adopted on the David Lloyd-Jones recording (review) but I’ve never heard a tenor sing all the solos. However, it’s perfectly justified because the score quite clearly states that the piece is ‘for tenor or soprano solo, chorus and orchestra’. In the event I thought it worked pretty well. Peter Hoare made a good job of the solo part and though there was sometimes evidence of tightness at the top of his register I admired the clarity of his tone and his diction and he sang expressively. Occasionally I missed the sense of vulnerability that a female soloist can bring to this music but overall I was convinced. The chorus, too, sang very well though, as has happened before in this week, they were sometimes pitted against an orchestral sound that was rather too overpowering. This was especially true in the first movement, ‘The Fourth of August’ though the balance seemed to me to improve as the work progressed.
The Swiss conductor Baldur Brönimann, is something of a specialist in contemporary music.
I wonder how much Elgar he has conducted. I don’t think he’s an instinctive Elgar conductor and there were a number of occasions, especially in the first movement, where he tended to press on, disregarding the many tempo modifications that Elgar has written into the score. Generally, however, I thought he led the work convincingly. My main regret was that there were a couple of crucial points in the score where he didn’t allow the music sufficient breadth to make its expressive point. One was the very end of the first movement (‘Now in thy splendour go before us…’) and the other, sadly, was the supremely moving passage towards the end of ‘The Fourth of August’ (‘Moving in marches across the heavenly plain…’) At these points I rather suspect he felt that too broad a speed would make the music sound pompous or vainglorious: he should have trusted Elgar more. Overall, however, this was a good performance.
But the performance of the night was reserved for The Lark Ascending. Matthew Trusler was a simply marvellous soloist and from the moment when he caressed the delicate opening phrases I sensed we were in for something special. The Philharmonia, sensitively directed by Baldur Brönimann, matched Trusler’s delicacy at every point. The accompaniment was, for the most part, gossamer-light though Brönimann brought out some telling detail, especially in the woodwind parts. We hear The Lark so often on CD or on the radio that its beauties perhaps get taken for granted. It’s only when one attends a live performance that one realises just how difficult it is to play well. This was an outstanding, magical performance. RVW wrote the piece in 1914 though it was not heard in public until well after the end of the War. By then the rural idyll which he portrayed had gone for ever. As Matthew Trusler’s last, ethereal phrases spiralled upwards into the high ceiling of Worcester Cathedral it was possible easily to imagine that the music portrayed not just a bird but also the more innocent pre-Great War world vanishing from earthly sight.
The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and is scheduled for broadcast on 19 September. This will offer another chance to evaluate A Foreign Field. In view of my personal disappointment with the piece I should record, in fairness, that the performance was very warmly received so perhaps mine was a minority view.