Three Choirs Festival 2011 (8) – A wonderful account of Brahms’s Requiem in Worcester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Brahms: Peter Atkinson (narrator), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), William Dazeley (baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Geraint Bowen. Worcester Cathedral, 12.8.2011 (JQ)

Vaughan Williams: An Oxford Elegy

Brahms: Eine deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Eine deutsches Requiem is one of the great staples of the choral repertoire but it presents a problem: since it isn’t long enough to fill a concert by itself, what music is best to accompany it? The safe choice is music by one of the Austro-German masters, say Haydn, Mozart or Schubert. However, for this Three Choirs programme Geraint Bowen selected something much more unusual, not to say daring, in the form of Vaughan Williams’s An Oxford Elegy. I freely confess that this is perhaps the least familiar to me of RVW’s choral works. I’ve heard recordings of it but I’ve never had the chance to experience it live in concert.

It’s a rather strange work, setting words by the Victorian poet, Matthew Arnold for speaker, chorus and orchestra. Arnold’s words are recited over the music and much of the writing for the choir requires them to sing wordlessly. Perhaps these things explain its relative neglect. That it is so infrequently heard is a pity because, as this performance proved, it contains some beautiful music that is too good to slumber unheard.

As Hugh Thomas pointed out in his useful programme note, the work grew out of RVW’s long-held wish to base an opera on Arnold’s The Scholar Gypsy. The work was composed between 1947 and 1949. That means it is a near-contemporary of the Sixth Symphony and an exact contemporary of the music for the film ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, out of which grew the later Sinfonia Antartica. But the music of An Oxford Elegy is a world away from the dramatic, powerful music contained in either the symphony or the film score. Instead the orchestration is light and restrained, the music breathes an air of almost uninterrupted serenity and the dynamics are mainly subdued, rarely rising as high as forte. The doyen of RVW commentators, Michael Kennedy, has pointed out the piece was written for pleasure. Mr Kennedy draws attention to the music’s “nostalgic expression, [and] a sadness tinged with mellow resignation.”

I wonder if this performance brought us a Three Choirs ‘first’? I doubt very much whether in any of the preceding 283 festivals one of the cathedral deans has appeared as a soloist but on this occasion the narrator was Peter Atkinson, the Dean of Worcester. He proved to be an inspired choice. His calm, measured delivery was absolutely right for the words, which he read beautifully. He spoke not just with great clarity but also with evident understanding and empathy. The choir and orchestra delivered their often-subtle music with great finesse. This predominantly gentle music was delightful to hear and I enjoyed this sensitive performance very much. This is just the sort of piece one is likely to hear at Three Choirs but not at many other venues.

The Brahms Requiem was given a performance of utmost distinction. The choir have sung very well indeed at all the other concerts I’ve heard this week but they seemed to raise their game significantly for Brahms. That’s all the more remarkable since the piece is hugely demanding for the chorus, which sings pretty much continuously for over an hour, and this concert came towards the end of a very busy week for the Festival Chorus. Yet all sections of the choir distinguished themselves and the singing never showed so much as a trace of tiredness. The basses provided a firm foundation for the choral sound yet they achieved this without any heaviness – fatal in this work! The sopranos frequently have extended lines in alt and these singers were never daunted by Brahms’s demands. At all times their singing was fresh and accurate and the quality of the tone fell very pleasingly on the ear.

The interior parts are critically important in this work and they were splendidly done in this performance. The alto line was firm, with never a suspicion of ‘pluminess’. As I’ve commented in earlier reviews, the presence in the Festival Chorus of a number of male altos adds an extra dimension. The edge that the male voices bring makes certain lines stand out in a way that one doesn’t usually hear. There were several examples of this, the best coming in the penultimate movement, where the altos led off the fugue ‘Herr, du bist würdig’ in great style. And the tenors were marvellous. I admit to some bias: I’ve had the pleasure of singing the tenor part in this work on several occasions. It’s a really rewarding part to sing but it is also very taxing. The Festival Chorus tenors were unstinting and produced a splendidly clear and sweet tone throughout. Even towards the very end of a long sing, at ‘Selig sind die toten’ in the final movement, there wasn’t the slightest hint of strain.

The soloists’ parts may be relatively short in length but both singers have very demanding music. William Dazeley was absolutely superb. He sang from memory and his eye contact with the audience was exceptional. Every word was sung with utmost conviction and he really communicated with us. His vocal tone was excellent and his tuning and diction flawless. His commanding performance was as good as it gets in this role. I would love to hear him as Elijah. The soprano solo could not be more different. Where the baritone part is often dramatic the soprano is required to soar seraphically in ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’. Elizabeth Watts gave an expressive and truly lovely reading of this beautiful movement. The tessitura is demanding but she negotiated it all expertly, never losing the line, and her tone was pure and lovely. Like Mr Dazeley, at all times she looked as if she really meant what she was singing.

The Philharmonia has been on excellent form all week, playing expertly in a wide variety of music. They maintained their fine form into this performance. The string sound was very fine; there was much excellent work from the woodwinds; and the brass produced burnished tone.

I admired Geraint Bowen’s conducting very much. He clearly loves the work and he encouraged all the performers to share his affection and feeling for the music. I thought his choice of tempi was consistently spot-on – everything just seemed to be right throughout the evening. I especially appreciated the vigour and vitality with which he led the fugal passages in the second, third and sixth movements. In the wrong hands these can seem to go on forever but there was no danger of that at Mr Bowen’s lively but sensible speeds. The other danger in these stretches is that the music lapses into an undifferentiated forte so that the textures sound thick. This danger was also avoided. The well-prepared chorus sang these passages with strength but also with lightness and imparted the necessary light and shade to the music.

All in all, this was one of the finest live accounts of this wonderful work that I have ever heard and the sixty-seven minutes that the performance took seemed to be over far too soon.

I’ve only been able to attend five concerts at this year’s Festival – the day job annoyingly intrudes! But at all five the standard of music making has been very high indeed and from what I hear from others this has been true across the piste of the festival generally. Adrian Lucas has taken his leave of Three Choirs with a well- planned and fine festival. And despite the troubled economic times the attendances have been excellent, which is not only good news in terms of supporting the artists but also in terms of the Festival finances. And it’s worth making one other point. Regular readers of Seen and Heard reviews will frequently see complaints by my colleagues about the inconsiderate fidgeting and coughing that one experiences all too often at concerts these days – I myself have made the odd comment to this effect too! What a pleasure it has been this last week to be part of an attentive and considerate audience. Yes, there are occasional coughs, as is inevitable when over 1500 people are in one place for a couple of hours. But the coughing is restrained and one feels the audience is concentrating on the music and respecting the performers and each other. That’s pretty typical of Three Choirs in my experience and long may it continue.

The 2012 Festival as been brought forward in order to avoid a clash with the Olympics. It takes place in Hereford between 21 and 28 July. Geraint Bowen has devised an exciting programme including Haydn’s Creation, Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, the Berlioz Te Deum and an all-too-rare opportunity to hear Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims. More information will shortly be available on the Festival website and I for one can’t wait for the 285th Three Choirs Festival

John Quinn