With Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ the 2016 Three Choirs Festival Ends Magnificently
Three Choirs Festival (15) – Mahler: Hye-Youn Lee (soprano – Magna Peccatrix); Mary Plazas (soprano – Una poenitentium); Jennifer France (soprano – Mater gloriosa); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano – Mulier Samaritana); Madeleine Shaw (mezzo-soprano – Mater Aegyptica); Peter Auty (tenor – Doctor Marianus); Gary Griffiths (bass – Pater ecstaticus); Stephan Loges (bass – Pater Profundus); Jonathan Hope (organ); Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir; Three Cathedral Choirs; Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 30.7. 2016. (JQ)
Mahler – Symphony No 8 in E-flat
Performances of Maher’s Eighth Symphony are more common than used to be the case but, especially outside London, UK performances don’t happen all that often, partly on account of the vast – and therefore expensive – forces required and partly because the work requires a suitable performance space. In fact, though I’ve heard it many times on radio and on CD, I’ve only attended two previous performances of the work. One, conducted by Sir Charles Groves in the late 1970s, as I recall, took place in the huge Anglican cathedral in Liverpool. The other was given in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in 2002 when Sir Simon Rattle led the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and massed choirs in a roof-raising reading prior to a Proms performance. Tonight’s performance was not a Three Choirs first. There have been at least two prior outings for the work, both of which I missed: one was some years ago in Worcester, guest conducted by Libor Pešek, and the other was a performance here in Gloucester Cathedral in 2007 at the end of Andrew Nethsingha’s final Festival. That latter performance was reviewed by my colleague, Jim Pritchard and I was interested to see that then, as now, one of the mezzo soloists was Catherine Wyn-Rogers.
The enormous forces required to do justice to this score led to it receiving – not from Mahler – the nickname ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. In fact, few performance or recordings come close to those numbers though I’ve heard a couple of important live recordings that do (review ~ review). Tonight’s assembly of performers was closer in size to what I’d call the “conventional” size for a performance of the work. There were probably about 200 singers in the choruses; the size of the orchestra was harder to gauge as quite a few players were hidden from view behind pillars but I’d guess there were about 100 players in total. The cathedral stage was packed to overflowing; a splendid sight.
Once all the forces were assembled Adrian Partington’s downbeat was the signal for a throaty roar from the cathedral organ and we were off! The choir’s full-hearted entry (‘Veni, veni, creator spiritus’) augured well. The opening pages were swift and compelling; there was a genuine urgency to the performance yet the music-making was disciplined. When the soloists became involved the two who immediately caught my ear – they were the most prominent in Part I, though not in an overdone way – were soprano Hye-Youn Lee and the ever-reliable Catherine Wyn-Rogers. I’d heard Miss Lee sing earlier this year here in Gloucester Cathedral in a performance of Elgar’s Apostles but, well though she sang on that occasion, tonight she revealed a dramatic power which took me by surprise. Her tone was unforced but the voice cut through like a laser.
Even when the opening tumult subsided Adrian Partington maintained the tension in the ‘Infirma nostri corporis’ section. The briskly-paced orchestral interlude that followed was sharp and incisive. ‘Accende’ and the following pages were a musical flood tide. I can’t readily recall hearing this passage taken as swiftly; it was so daring, especially in such a resonant acoustic. Afterwards a highly experienced professional musician commented to me that he felt the speed was too fast in this section, blurring the counterpoint. That’s a very fair point but for me the sheer impact and conviction of the performance outweighed that important consideration; it was an exhilarating adrenalin rush. The chorus was absolutely superb in this lengthy, complex passage and the children’s choir made their presence felt with clear. confident singing that cut through the texture, as it should. The return of the opening ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ was overwhelming and when we reached ‘Gloria Patri’ the children led it off with strongly focussed singing. The end of the movement, with four extra brass players adding to the grandeur from the organ loft, was simply magnificent. The movement played for some 22 minutes and seemed to flash by in one thrilling sweep.
Goethe’s strange, spectral landscape was evocatively depicted by the Philharmonia at the start of Part II. Though the music is very different from what we’d heard in Part I it was characterised by just as much tension. Later in this long introduction there was great urgency in the orchestra’s approach. The playing and conducting throughout this introduction were very fine and I admired the adroit management of tempo transitions, as I did frequently elsewhere in the performance. The choir’s first contribution was spot-on. Their staccato music here may sound simple but that’s far from the case; I’ve heard performance, including at least one on a commercial studio recording, where the ensemble has been ragged, especially if the conductor takes the music too slowly. Here the pacing was just right and the choir achieved admirable unanimity.
Part II gives us a better chance to evaluate the soloists because all of them have extended solos. I’d say the women came out on top. The Welsh singer, Gary Griffiths (a baritone, though here advertised as a bass) impressed me in his Pater ecstaticus solo. His voice was firmly and evenly produced and the top register sounded in excellent order. When I hear a good singer in this role I always regret that Mahler made the solo so brief: tonight was such a case. Though also billed as a bass, I see that Stephan Loges describes himself as a bass-baritone on his own website. He is, of course, a very well-known singer. He’s appeared in Gloucester before: I saw him in a superb account of Britten’s War Requiem conducted by Adrian Partington back in 2013 when he impressed me very much (review). Tonight I felt that he was miscast. His voice lacks the sheer amplitude that this demanding solo requires, especially at the bottom, and the top register sounded under pressure, which I had not expected. It’s an ungrateful solo to sing and often Loges seemed to be straining to project over the orchestral accompaniment. This fine singer has had better evenings.
Peter Auty proved rather more suited to the role of Doctor Marianus than he had to the tenor role in Elijah earlier in the week (review). Mahler’s music requires much more vocal heft than does Mendelssohn’s and Auty was suitably equipped. However, his singing tonight still evidenced a distressing tendency to approach notes from underneath and, to my ears, there’s no sweetness to the voice; for all its demanding tessitura the Doctor Marianus role requires sweetness and finesse, neither of which were really in evidence here. ‘Höchste Herrscherin der Welt!’, paced a little too swiftly for my taste, suffered from this absence of sweetness though a few pages further on ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne’ came off better than I’d dared to hope. Mr Auty also gave us a fervent ‘Blicket auf’ towards the end of the performance.
Both sopranos, Hye-Youn Lee and Mary Plazas, made pleasing solo contributions in Part II. I’ve always admired Catherine Wyn-Rogers, not least for her warm, well-focussed tone and the clarity of her diction. Suffice to say that her solos in Part II demonstrated these traits fully. Madeleine Shaw was a late replacement for Janina Baechle as Mater Aegyptica and I greatly enjoyed hearing her performance. Like Catherine Wyn-Rogers her timbre is warm and full, though neither singer sacrifices clarity in the pursuit of tonal richness. Miss Shaw’s solos were excellent and she and her fellow female principals blended well in duets and trios.
The remaining soloist, Jennifer France has the smallest role to sing but, my goodness it’s a crucial one – and horribly exposed. There was no better place to position her for Mater gloriosa’s solo than atop the organ screen. From here she floated her phrases quite beautifully. The summons to the penitent Gretchen was clear and reassuring.
In and among these various solos we heard much more from the choruses and everything came off very well. In particular, the ladies and children sang the various passages for Angels and Blessed Boys with appealing freshness.
The last fifteen minutes or so, from the Mater gloriosa solo, were magnificent. The choral singing in ‘Blicket auf’ was expansive and generously phrased. Then Adrian Partington led the Philharmonia in a simply magical preparation for the choir’s hushed entry at ‘Alles Vergängliche’. That entry, when it came, was ideally managed. If the choir is too hushed at this point the singing sounds mushy and indistinct but, of course, one doesn’t want to lose the sense of mystery through singing that is over-loud. The choir were ideal at this point: there was a magical hush but even though I wasn’t following the text in the programme I had no trouble in discerning the words. A few minutes later the fortissimo restatement of ‘Alles Vergängliche’ came as a blazing affirmation. Once again we had the extra brass to reinforce the reprise of the ‘Veni creator’ theme, bringing the symphony full circle. As in his Second Symphony Mahler leaves human voices behind at the end and entrusts the final peroration to the instruments. The Philharmonia played us out in glory, the brass magnificent and Jonathan Hope underpinning everything with some mighty sounds from the organ.
This performance, which was rapturously received, was a prodigious achievement. Of course, it benefitted from the involvement of highly experienced soloists and a world-class orchestra – the Philharmonia played superbly throughout. But what made this performance so special for me was the tremendous contribution of the chorus. Here we had local, amateur singers giving a magnificent account of all the many facets of Mahler’s complex and demanding choral writing. This was a choral performance fully on a par with any I’ve heard. And let it not be forgotten that the Festival Chorus came into this testing assignment on the back of five other major concerts, each with a daytime rehearsal, in the preceding six days. This Mahler performance was as much a tribute to their stamina as to their musicianship.
Above all the performance was a personal triumph for Adrian Partington. This is a hugely complex score and he led his forces through it in a masterly fashion. It was evident from watching him that he was consistently energising and motivating everyone. Equally evident was his complete command and vision of the score. By my watch the performance lasted for 77 minutes, which is pretty swift, yet although there was often considerable urgency to the interpretation I didn’t think the music was over-driven; on the contrary, it was exhilarating. He must have been physically and emotionally drained at the end.
And so the 2016 Three Choirs Festival came to a magnificent conclusion. It’s been a tremendous success, I think. I’ve covered nine concerts, all of them first class, and to judge by his reviews my colleague Roger Jones has been equally impressed by the concerts that he’s attended. Very good reports have reached me of a number of other events and in general there’s been a buzz around the Festival all week. We’ve heard many fine musicians and ensembles and once again as resident orchestra the Philharmonia has anchored the principal concerts in tremendous style. Their relationship with the Festival has been outstandingly successful to date; long may it continue. Attendances at events seem to have been strong: all the events I’ve been at have seemed virtually full and I understand that the eight main Cathedral concerts have attracted 95% capacity; that’s great news, not least on the financial side.
For me, though, the outstanding feature of this festival has been the singing of the Festival Chorus. I’ve spoken to a good number of people during the week, several of them very experienced judges of such matters, and there’s been complete agreement that the Chorus has been superb. I’ve been coming to the Three Choirs Festival for more than 20 years and I can’t recall a better Festival Chorus: this year has been a vintage. The singers have had a wide variety of difficult music to sing, as usual, and they’ve come up trumps every time. That’s a great tribute to the commitment and hard work on the part of these singers, all of them amateurs, over many weeks of rehearsal. It’s also a tribute to the skilled way in which they’ve been prepared by Adrian Partington and his colleagues, Geraint Bowen (Hereford) and Peter Nardone (Worcester). It’s been a memorable week.
The preliminary details of Peter Nardone’s programme for the Worcester festival in 2017 have just been announced. Among the attention-grabbing events there will be a rare UK performance of Mendelssohn’s other oratorio, St Paul. Tippett’s A child of our Time is on the opening night programme while Howells’ radiant Hymnus Paradisi will close the festival. Wayne Marshall will be the organ soloist in the Poulenc concerto and Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, paired in the same programme. Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius will be in the hands of guest conductor Martyn Brabbins. Another guest, the German conductor, Frank Beermann will conduct Janáček’s compelling Glagolitic Mass. Mozart’s great C minor Mass is on the menu too – I see it is coupled, rather oddly, with Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony, ‘The Year 1917’. The annual concert of the Festival Youth Choir will feature Fauré’s Requiem and I shall be interested to hear them sing in the same concert a work which impressed me on CD: Jonathan Dove’s There was a Child (review). With guest appearances by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge and by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and new works by, among others, Sally Beamish and Roderick Williams, the Three Choirs Festival is sure to appeal to the widest range of tastes – there’ll even be a celebration of Dixieland jazz.
The 2017 Three Choirs Festival will run between 22 and 29 July. Full details at www.3choirs.org.