A Splendid Three Choirs Pilgrimage to Canterbury

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 3: Susan Gritton (soprano), Alan Oke (tenor), Simon Bailey (bass-baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Hereford Cathedral. 25.7.2012. (JQ)

Sir George Dyson (1888-1964) – The Canterbury Pilgrims (1930)

There were several reasons to draw me to Hereford for this performance of The Canterbury Pilgrims. Chief among them was the opportunity – my first in nearly five decades of concert- going – to hear a live performance of this attractive work. I’ve known it for some years from the excellent 1996 Chandos recording by Richard Hickox (CHAN 9531) but these days performances of the work are like the proverbial hen’s teeth. Another, less important reason is that, like Dyson, I was born in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax and one always likes to support “home industry”. Dyson’s music isn’t heard much in the concert halls these days but the Chandos label in particular has released recordings of several of his works and I’ve enjoyed all of these very much.

As Lewis Foreman related in his excellent programme note, Dyson was born into a humble working class background yet, with no advantages of birth or wealth, he secured a place at the Royal College of Music in 1900, becoming a Stanford pupil. Later, after time studying in Europe, he spent the years 1907-1937, apart from war service, teaching at an increasingly prestigious succession of English public schools before leaving the last of these, Winchester College, to become director of his alma mater, the Royal College of Music, which post he occupied until 1952. Truly, Dyson could be described as a self-made man.

The Canterbury Pilgrims used to be a great favourite with British choral societies and that’s not hard to understand because, as Lewis Foreman wrote in the booklet note that accompanied the Hickox recording, “this music sprang from a deep conviction as to the practical needs of the English choral movement. Dyson was concerned about the increasing domination of the repertoire by music of the past and he recognised that major English works, such as Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony and Delius’s Mass of Life were beyond most societies.” The choral writing in The Canterbury Pilgrims, though it clearly has its challenging moments, is not as consistently demanding as A Sea Symphony – I can’t speak for the Delius work, since I’ve never sung it. Dyson’s practicality went further than this, however. Though his work is scored for a large orchestra of double wind, full brass, timpani, percussion, harp and organ (both ad lib) and strings the vocal score contains detailed guidance as to how several of the brass instruments may be omitted, their parts being cued for other instruments, without harming the scoring; any choral society treasurer would be glad to read such a note! However, despite all this, like so many other works of its time, The Canterbury Pilgrims fell into neglect after the 1950s. Indeed, I was amazed to discover that it has never been heard at a Three Choirs Festival even though it falls so firmly into the English Choral Tradition. So all praise to Geraint Bowen for making it one of the central events of this festival.

And let it be said straightaway that if the Three Choirs needed to make any amends for overlooking Dyson’s piece in the past such amends were made most handsomely in this splendid performance. In the days before the concert I’d spoken to a couple of chorus members, both of whom had said how much they’d enjoyed preparing the work – “What a find!” was the comment of one highly experienced tenor. That showed in the performance. The Festival Chorus has been in fine fettle at every concert I’ve heard so far this week but, my goodness, they tackled Dyson’s score with great enthusiasm and assurance. They sang with pleasing delicacy in the Prologue – and in the score’s other quieter passages – but elsewhere the singing was suitably ebullient, as in the strong choral writing in the second movement, ‘The Knight’. I liked the range of dynamics and the sensitivity that they brought to the splendid passage for choir that ends the fourth section, ‘The Nun’, and the singers were really confident and strong of tone in the virile music depicting ‘The Shipman’. Mind you, they needed to be so for if I have a criticism of the performance as a whole it would be that there were a number of times, this being one of them, when the Philharmonia rather threatened to overpower the choir; arguably Martyn Brabbins could and should have reined in the brass, in particular, just a little. Still, the chorus more than held their own and their splendid singing was a major factor in the success of the performance.

The two male soloists were new to me but both proved to be ideal choices. The tenor has the most to do and at every turn Alan Oke’s singing gave great pleasure. He sang with fine clarity – we’d no need to follow the words – and some nicely humorous touches. I admired his articulation and characterisation in the bright and breezy music of ‘The Squire’. In complete contrast was the music for another of his solos, ‘The Doctor of Physic’. Here Dyson’s music is at its most original with some very interesting harmonies and orchestral colourings to illustrate the mystique of medieval medicine – there were definite shades of Holst hereabouts. Alan Oke sang the solo very well indeed and his witty but unostentatious delivery at the very end of the movement rightly caused the audience to chuckle.

Simon Bailey also made a very positive impression. He told the story of the worldly lover of hunting, ‘The Monk’, with evident relish – again, the orchestra was sometimes too heavy in this movement. Even more enjoyable – and even finer as a piece of singing – was ‘The Sergeant of The Law. The Franklin’ (movement 8). Firstly, Bailey evoked the full majesty of the law. Here he deployed splendid tone with every note firm and true and, like his tenor colleague, he delivered the words with great clarity. Then he articulated crisply – as did the orchestra – the faster music in which Dyson depict the prosperous Franklin and his enjoyment of the pleasures of the table.

Susan Gritton sang the delightfully fresh music in movement 4, ‘The Nun’, with lovely tone though sometimes her words were not entirely clear. She made a fine job of the entertainingly and lively portrayal of ‘The Wife of Bath’. She put this music across with wit and the Philharmonia played the orchestral accompaniment with gusto.

And if I say that the word “gusto” is apt as an overall summary of the performance I hope that won’t be taken as implying a performance long on enthusiasm but short on finesse for that would be completely wrong. Martyn Brabbins, no stranger to performing neglected and/or large scale works, inspired his forces and released the enthusiasm that was evident among the choir in particular. However, despite my reservation about the volume of the orchestra at times, Brabbins was also adept at bringing out the more subtle and poetic aspects of the score – of which there are many. Under his energetic and committed leadership this came across as a convinced and convincing performance.

Indeed, I think that it would not be overstating the case to describe the performance as revelatory. I strongly suspect that many in the audience had not heard the work before yet it clearly made a strong and positive impression. It was evident both from the warmth of the applause and from comments I heard from members of the audience as we shuffled out of the cathedral that the work and the performance had greatly entertained everyone. As quite possibly the only Halifax native in the cathedral I couldn’t help feeling a bit of home town pride!

Was a neglected masterpiece revealed? Not quite. However, Dyson’s piece is very well written; it’s imaginatively – at times, opulently – scored; it contains some splendid choral writing, even if the shadow of Vaughan Williams, and Sea Symphony in particular, hovers over it; and it’s hugely entertaining. Most certainly it does not deserve to be neglected as it has been: it’s far too good for that and I’m sure that, if members of choral societies knew of it they’d take to it as enthusiastically as, it seems, has the Festival Chorus. The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future transmission: look out for it. With that broadcast to come and the Hickox recording about to be reissued let’s hope that, with the splendid advocacy of the Three Choirs Festival, The Canterbury Pilgrims will finally come in from the cold.

John Quinn