More Superb Singing at Three Choirs Festival

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 5. Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), James Rutherford (baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Nardone (conductor). Hereford Cathedral. 26.7.2012 (JQ)

Ireland:  London Overture
Delius:  Sea Drift
Elgar: The Music Makers

This concert gave me the first opportunity to see Peter Nardone, the new Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral, conducting. He made an immediately strong impression in the opening pages of Ireland’s overture where I relished the sharp profile he gave to the music, not least through excellent observance of the accents in the score. Such attention to detail is great to see and it resulted in strong characterisation of the music. Later the famous ‘’Dilly, Piccadilly’ music was played in a suitably bright and breezy way while the romantic and reflective central section was caringly phrased with a lovely contribution from the solo horn.

A few weeks ago I was very impressed with James Rutherford when I heard him sing the baritone solos in The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham (review) – by coincidence, tonight’s other soloist, Sarah Connolly took part in that same concert. However, Sea Drift offered a chance to hear his voice deployed, as it were, on a much larger canvass. Rutherford already has an impressive CV, including appearances as Hans Sachs at Bayreuth in 2010 and 2011. This performance gave us a good indication of why he’s so highly regarded. His imposing physical presence complements an imposing voice and where Delius’s music called for it he was able to deploy sufficient power to ride the opulent orchestral and choral textures. As well as his rich, full sound I appreciated greatly his clarity of diction. However, what impressed me most was the control he exerted over his voice. This enabled him to fine down the tone on many occasions and sing with great sensitivity. So, for example, he invested “This gentle call is for you, my love, for you” with tenderness and he was just as subtle at “O I am very sick and sorrowful”. His singing in the last few moments of the piece was movingly eloquent. A terrific performance.

The Festival Chorus did well also. Their words were often unclear but the fault for that lies firmly with the composer. I especially admired their singing of the unaccompanied passage in the stanza that begins “Shake out carols!” On several occasions the orchestra rather drowned the choir but that’s the nature of the extravagant scoring. In fact I thought Peter Nardone obtained more clarity of texture in both the chorus and orchestra than I would have expected in this resonant acoustic. He conducted the score with passion and inspired some huge climaxes but more importantly he was alive to the poetry in the score, drawing some ravishing and delicate playing and singing. Sea Drift is not a work that would be on my Desert Island list: Whitman’s image-rich verse verges on the prolix at times and I find it somewhat indigestible while Delius’s music is sometimes too indulgent. That said, I hope I can recognise a good performance of the work and this was certainly in that category.

Prior to the concert a comment by a very experienced and knowledgeable Elgar enthusiast was relayed to me to the effect that for a successful performance of The Music Makers everything has to be right. I’d say that pretty much everything about this performance was right. It helps enormously, of course, if you have a top-flight Elgar soloist on hand and on top form but other things besides Sarah Connolly’s singing made this a successful performance.

Peter Nardone conducted with sweep and with a good feeling for the score and for Elgar’s idiom. Though he made the most of the poetic passages, not least those where self-quotation is involved, much of his interpretation was urgent. That’s good because the worst thing you can do in Elgar is to linger and let the music tip over into sentimentality. True, there were a couple of occasions when I thought perhaps he treated a climax just a bit too broadly but overall he produced an exciting performance which I enjoyed very much. When Elgar wrote The Music Makers in 1912 he was still at the height of his powers and some of the orchestral writing is dazzling in its virtuosity. The Philharmonia played the score for all it was worth and there were some thrilling moments as well as several of great sensitivity. My only reservation – and it’s been a recurrent one this week – is that at times they played too loudly with the brass – and, here, the trombones – the chief cuplrits. I think it’s sometimes overlooked that in Elgar’s day orchestras were neither as good as they are today nor as sonorous – the brass instruments would have had narrower bores for one thing – so he couldn’t have anticipated the sheer amount of sound that an orchestra such as the twenty-first century Philharmonia can produce at will and without any forcing of the tone. Therefore, it’s incumbent on players and conductors to ease off at times to let the vocal parts register as the composer intended.

However, even at full tilt the Philharmonia couldn’t diminish the impact of the Festival Chorus. They’ve sung splendidly every time I’ve heard them this week – a tribute to the preparation by Geraint Bowen, Peter Nardone and Adrian Partington – and this performance maintained that standard. They were excellent in their opening passages, singing with firm tone and paying good attention to Elgar’s copious expression marks, even if true p and pp singing wasn’t always achieved when it should have been. Later, they were strong at “The soldier, the king and the peasant”, delivered with rhythmic punch, and the quotation of the motto theme from the First Symphony (“Out of the infinite morning”) was a moment of genuine grandeur. Nor did any of the many sensitive passages in the score disappoint. I hope I won’t be accused of tribal loyalty if I give the tenors a special mention. At several key points they cut through the texture thrillingly, just as they should, not least at “The multitudes are bringing to pass”.

As for Sarah Connolly, she lived up to my expectations completely. From her very first entry, wonderfully poised, everything she sang had tonal lustre and great expressiveness. I loved the feeling and dignity with which she sang “But on one man’s soul it hath broken” with its poignant reference to ‘Nimrod’ and, therefore, to A.E. Jaeger, while a few bars later she was impassioned at “Wrought flame in another man’s heart.” Not long ago I heard a performance of this work in a secular concert hall acoustic – in other words, not as resonant as Hereford Cathedral – and even though I was seated closer to the front than I was tonight I had some difficulty in hearing the soloist – a very good singer – above the choir and orchestra in the passage “And therefore today is thrilling”. From my seat in the Hereford nave I had much less difficulty in hearing Miss Connolly in these pages, which is a tribute to her projection, focus and clarity. She was thrilling at “Great hail!”, a passage that tests the full vocal compass of any soloist and then crowned her performance with an eloquent rendition of the closing pages, beginning at “Bring us hither”. No wonder she’s such a Three Choirs favourite.

By the time this review appears the 2012 Three Choirs Festival will have come to an end. I’ve only been able to attend and report on a few of the concerts – all of them excellent – but from everything I hear the festival has been highly successful. Not only that but also the sun has shone!

Next year, with the Olympics behind us, the Festival will move to Gloucester and will revert to its usual position in the calendar, from 27 July to 4 August. Adrian Partington’s adventurous programme includes Rachmaninov’s The Bells with guest conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. Edward Gardner will conduct a programme marking the Verdi and Wagner anniversaries, including Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces. Belshazzar’s Feast will be on the menu as well as a work that’s a great rarity nowadays, Coleridge Taylor’s trilogy, The Song of Hiawatha. The closing concert will include The Dream of Gerontius; it’s a wonderful masterpiece but it’s slightly disappointing that Gloucester will be repeating a work that was heard at Worcester Three Choirs only last year. Full details of these and many other enticing events in the programme can be found on the Festival website

John Quinn