The Three Choirs Festival Takes to The High Seas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 1. Ailish Tynan (soprano), Owen Gilhooley (baritone), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Partington (conductor). Hereford Cathedral. 23.7.2012 (JQ)

Mendelssohn: ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ – Overture
Joseph Phibbs: (b. 1974):  Rivers to the Sea (2012)
Vaughan Williams:  A Sea Symphony

On what was probably the hottest day of 2012 – so far – it was an ideal evening on which to take the Three Choirs Festival audience on a cruise. With Adrian Partington, Gloucester Cathedral’s Director of Music, at the helm we embarked perhaps not expecting a Calm Sea – those who know their Sea Symphony will have been anticipating at least some lively swells – but in hope of a Prosperous Voyage. All right, that’s the end of maritime puns; I promise!

The Mendelssohn overture opened promisingly. Mr. Partington and the Philharmonia beautifully suggested the Calm Sea in a spacious treatment of the slow introduction. The main allegro was lively – I daren’t use the word ‘buoyant’ in view of my promise above – and it’s certainly not the fault of the performers that the music itself does rather go on.

It was an enterprising choice, not to say a daring one, to give a Three Choirs première to Joseph Phibbs’ recent orchestral work, Rivers to the Sea, but Adrian Partington has previously proved himself a capable champion of modern music, not least with his performance of music by John Adams at last year’s festival (review) and the première of an important choral work by John Joubert in 2010 (review).  Rivers to the Sea was commissioned  jointly by the Philharmonia and by Anvil Arts to mark the 18th anniversary of the Anvil Arts Centre in Basingstoke. Mr Phibbs is more fortunate than many contemporary composers in that his new work has now received several performances in a matter of weeks. After its first performance, which was given in Basingstoke in mid-June, the Philharmonia played it again, this time in London, a few days later when my colleague Gavin Dixon heard it (review). Apart from the gratifying exposure for a new piece all this meant that the Philharmonia arrived in Hereford familiar with the complex writing of Phibbs’ score.

The composer, whose teachers have included Sir Harrison Birtwistle, already has an impressive catalogue of works to his credit, including a number of orchestral compositions. However, it appears from his website that Rivers to the Sea is his longest orchestral work to date and also the one written for the largest forces: the score calls for triple woodwind, a full complement of horns and brass, three percussionists (who are kept pretty busy at times), timpani, harp and strings. The piece, which plays for 25 minutes, was thoroughly introduced by the composer in a programme note. Cast in four movements with a central slow episode in between movements two and three, Phibbs says that although the piece “is not conceived as a seascape in a conventional sense, the presence of the sea acts as a driving force behind the work as a whole.” We all hear things differently, of course, and with a different imagination but I have to confess that, at a first hearing, I struggled to discern any sea imagery in the writing. In his review of the London performance Gavin Dixon commented – not in a critical way – that “the musical material [the large orchestra] explores is slight”. He went on to say “The formal plan resembles a symphony….but the actual music is anything but symphonic. There is little development here, and instead Phibbs  presents each movement as what he calls a ‘musical snapshot’, drawing on specific sonorities and colours, and laying out each over the course of a four or five minute movement.” The one area in which I’d tentatively disagree with Gavin relates to the musical material; to my ears there seemed to be a lot of material – arguably a little too much. I’d deliberately not re-read Gavin’s comments before this concert in order to form my own opinion but, looking now at his review, I agree with him about the lack of development. If that’s deliberate then it’s interesting because what I took away from the performance was an impression that the piece is mainly about the exploration of orchestral colour and sonorities. Phibbs handled the orchestra with great assurance and seemed to delight in the possibilities that a large orchestra offers. However, colour and sonority can only get you so far and the morning after the performance I’m struggling to recall many precise impressions other than the sounds made by the orchestra.

Some details remain in the memory, of course, even without looking at my notes. There’s the keening clarinet solo in the central interlude which Phibbs calls “the static centre of the work.” There’s the important doleful horn solo in the slow third movement, which put me in mind of the ‘Elegy’ movement from Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. There was the impressive transition from the third movement to the fourth; strong brass writing and rushing string passagework. And what the composer called the “brash, fast and pulsating” music in the finale was undeniably exciting. Yet, although I wanted to like the work, in the end, apart from an admiration for the way in which the ideas were rendered through the colourful and resourceful orchestration, the piece didn’t really work for me. Perhaps a more concise score would have been better; the third movement in particular seemed a little too long. The Three Choirs Festival has had a reputation for conservatism in some quarters. The warmth of the audience’s reception both for the performance and for the composer himself rather disproved that notion.

After the interval, with the concert running well behind schedule – an unexplained ten minute delay in starting hadn’t helped – Adrian Partington conducted a powerful and urgent account of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. By my watch the performance took 65 minutes, which is definitely on the fast side but though there were a few times when Mr Partington pressed the music a little too fast for my taste the overall impression was not of haste but of dramatic urgency. The opening, with its clarion call “Behold, the sea itself”, is one of the most thrilling in British music and the ardent proclamation by the Festival Chorus really made the audience sit up. Indeed, throughout the performance the choir was on magnificent form. They sang the big moments – “One flag above all the rest”, “Finally shall come the poet, worthy that name” and others – with full-throated confidence and with great conviction. In the virtuoso scherzo, ‘The Waves’, Partington’s cracking – and exciting – pace set his singers a real challenge but they responded superbly and I admired greatly the way in which they articulated both the notes and the words, especially in a resonant acoustic. Throughout the performance there was fine attention to detail, indicating a very well-prepared chorus. My one disappointment was that there weren’t too many instances where the choir achieved a true piano or pianissimo. This was especially true at the start of the finale when the achieved dynamic was closer to mp than the marked p, thereby sacrificing some of the sense of mysterious vastness, and again at the very end – “O my brave soul, O farther sail’ – where the whole ensemble should, ideally, have been a notch quieter on the dynamic scale. However, the choir’s singing was very fine overall and augurs well for the next few days. The same is true, by the way, of the Philharmonia’s playing. It’s a splendid orchestra in any case but the benefits of a close alliance between orchestra and festival over the last few years are readily apparent.

The symphony has key roles for the two vocal soloists. I don’t think I’ve heard Owen Gilhooley before. I started off being impressed by his clear diction; I was sitting about two-thirds of the way down the nave and the words reached me without difficulty. However, as the performance unfolded two things began to unsettle me. Firstly, there were several surprising instances of inaccurate notes. Secondly, and more troublingly, the amount of vibrato he employed meant that quite often the notes spread and while I’m sure they were accurately pitched as they left his mouth they were not 100% true by the time I heard them. That’s a pity because his performance had much to commend it, not least the conviction with which he put the music across. Ailish Tynan is quite slender of build but, my goodness, she can produce a very large sound when she wants to. At times I thought she pushed too hard – at “Flaunt out, O sea”, for example – but on the other hand, a little later in the first movement she made “Token of all brave captains” into a thrilling moment. That’s an unaccompanied phrase but elsewhere she had no difficulty in riding even the largest orchestral tuttis and at the end of the first movement she produced a fine, soft top A. In the finale she was ardent in her much of her duetting with Gilhooley though I thought that perhaps the more subtle and delicate passages in the soprano role were not quite as effectively done.

Adrian Partington imparted great energy and conviction to the performance. He clearly relished the sheer sweep of RVW’s score. This is the music of a relatively young man, keen to make his mark with his first symphonic statement and on a big occasion – the work was written for the prestigious Leeds Festival where he conducted the first performance on his 38th birthday. In Partington’s vision of the score you could sense that energy, that confidence. He also responded well to the poetry in the score and made sure his vocal and orchestral forces did so too.  It was an exhilarating performance – Vaughan Williams on the crest of a wave you might say.

John Quinn