NEW! In 2017 The Three Choirs Festival is from 22 to 29 July


The Three Choirs Festival 2017: A Preview

3 choirs festivalThe Three Choirs Festival, which was first held in 1715 is probably the oldest music festival in the world; is there another festival that has been in existence for over 300 years? The Festival is held in turn in one of the three cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. This year, by rotation, the Festival, which takes place between 22 and 29 July, will be hosted by the city of Worcester, The Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral, Peter Nardone, is Artistic Director of the Festival and he’s devised a wide-ranging programme of events. All the performances mentioned in this preview will take place in Worcester Cathedral unless otherwise stated.

I mentioned the length of time that the Festival has been in existence. Its long and fascinating story was chronicled by Anthony Boden in Three Choirs: A History of the Festival, published in 1992. Working in collaboration with Paul Hedley, Mr Boden has revised and updated his history and the new edition, now entitled Three Choirs Festival: A History, will be launched at the Festival on 23 July.

Peter Nardone says that he has taken as his starting point for the Festival programme “the historical tension between war-torn Europe and the contrasting atmosphere in the United States in 1917”. Thus, in this festival music commemorating the Russian Revolution of 1917 can be found cheek by jowl with Dixieland Jazz and pieces by Scott Joplin. Here are a few of the events that caught my eye as I browsed the Festival brochure.

It’s nice to see that the Opening Service includes a setting of the Benedicite by Francis Jackson the distinguished Organist of York Minster (1946-82) who will celebrate his 100th birthday in October. (22 July, 11.30) The first evening choral/orchestral concert, conducted by Peter Nardone, includes Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (22 July, 19.45). The following evening there’s a rare chance to hear Mendelssohn’s ‘other’ oratorio, St Paul. Overshadowed (unfairly) by Elijah, St Paul includes much fine music. David Stout sings the title role and Geraint Bowen conducts. (23 July, 19:45).

As usual the resident orchestra will be the Philharmonia and they’ll  be playing in a concert that could have been labelled “Organ Spectacular” in which Wayne Marshall plays the cathedral’s organ in the Poulenc concerto and Saint-Saëns’ ever-popular Third Symphony. The guest conductor will be Jérémie Rhorer (24 July, 19.45). Rhorer is, I think, new to the Three Choirs Festival and so too is another guest conductor, Frank Beermann. His programme includes the wonderfully wild Glagolitic Mass by Janáček. There’s also the premiere of the orchestral version of a set of songs by Torsten Rasch, Sarah Connolly gave the world premiere of A Welsh Night at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 2015 (review). She returns to unveil the orchestral version in Worcester (26 July, 19:45). Incidentally, Miss Connolly is due to give the London premiere of the songs, in their original version with piano, at the Wigmore Hall on 10 April at 13.00 in a recital that will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

A guest conductor who is no stranger to the Three Choirs Festival is Martyn Brabbins, the Musical Director of ENO. Renowned as an interpreter of British music, his reading of The Dream of Gerontius is sure to be a highlight of the week (25 July, 19:45). English music will also form the programme for the closing concert at which Peter Nardone will conduct music by Vaughan Williams and Finzi before bringing the festival to a close with Howells’ rapturous Hymnus Paradisi (29 July, 19.45)

His colleague from Gloucester Cathedral, Adrian Partington has been invited to conduct a programme, part of which picks up the 1917 theme of the Festival. He’ll be conducting Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony, ‘The Year 1917’, surely the work’s first outing at Three Choirs. Rather incongruously the symphony is paired with Mozart’s ‘Great’ C minor Mass (28 July, 19.45). The previous evening Mr Partington will lead a fascinating programme. The Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir has given some excellent concerts in recent years but this, I think, is the first time they’ve been allocated one of the prestigious evening concerts: an excellent decision. Joined by the Three Cathedral Choir Choristers they’ll sing Fauré’s luminously beautiful Requiem. Much less well-known but very rewarding is the other work on the programme, Jonathan Dove’s There Was a Child. There’s more information about this very worthwhile piece here. (27 July 19.45)

One of the visiting ensembles is the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. They offer a mixed recital of choral pieces. For their distinguished Director of Music, Stephen Cleobury, this is something of a musical homecoming to the cathedral where, as a boy, he was one of the choristers. (29 July, 15:00). Earlier in the week Andrew Carwood brings The Cardinall’s Musick to give a recital of Tudor church music. This expert ensemble are masterly exponents of this repertoire (27 July, 15:00) Wayne Marshall will be back at the console of the Cathedral organ to give a celebrity recital including Liszt’s mighty Fantasy and Fugue on ‘Ad Nos ad Salutarem Undam’ (28 July, 11.00). After that you’ll just have time for a quick sandwich before a song recital by the excellent young mezzo, Kitty Whately. She’ll include in her programme some songs specially written for her by Jonathan Dove and by Sally Beamish, whose new work, as yet untitled, will receive its first performance. (Huntingdon Hall, Worcester, 28 July, 14.30)

Throughout the Festival Choral Evensong will be celebrated in the cathedral on most evenings, generally at 17.30. However, on 26 July the service takes place at 15.30 because it will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

There are some 50 events during the Festival, taking place both in Worcester itself and in several of the highly attractive towns in the vicinity, so this preview has only scratched the surface. The full programme can be accessed through the Festival website (CLICK HERE).

Postal and online booking opens to the public on 24 April. From the same date telephone bookings can be made on 01452 768928.

John Quinn

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  1. Paul Barker says:

    Please advise where I can find the program day by day

    • Jim Pritchard says:

      Thanks Paul and I have made it clearer in the post and down towards the bottom you will get to it if you do what it says and ‘CLICK HERE’.

  2. Aileen Dorman says:

    Can anyone help with details of a programme of a concert held in the 1960s when an orchestra led by David McCallum played with the three choirs?

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