Three Choirs Festival Ends with a Fanfare

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival Ends with a Fanfare

Ireland, Liszt, Debussy, Briggs: Mark Bebbington (piano), Shirehall, Hereford, 27.7.2012. (RJ)

John Ireland: London Pieces; Amberley Wild Brooks
Franz Liszt: Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este
Claude Debussy: General Lavine; Feux d’artifice
David Briggs: Piano Sonata (world premiere)

Coleridge-Taylor, Dvořák, Brahms: Dante Quartet, Robert Plane (clarinet), St Peter’s Church, Hereford, 27.7.2012. (RJ)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor
Antonín Dvořák: String Quartet in F
Johannes Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor

Tchaikovsky, Coleridge-Taylor, Berlioz: Wynne Evans (tenor), Peter Dyke & Christopher Allsop (organ), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Geraint Bowen (conductor), Hereford Cathedral, 27.7.2012. (RJ)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Petite Suite de Concert
Hector Berlioz: Te Deum


The city of Hereford on the banks of the River Wye has been looking at its best this week. The restoration of its ancient cathedral is now complete, the cathedral close has been imaginately restored, the Festival Organ has been completely overhauled, the centre has acquired a statue of a bull (but of the wrong colour, critics complain), and during the week of this great music festival the sun shone down from a cloudless sky.

The title Three Choirs Festival is a misnomer, because it is not confined simply to choral concerts, though these always figure prominently. The programme is packed with recitals, talks, exhibitions, walks, evensong and other events starting from just after breakfast and lasting until the midnight hour. Although the evening concerts are always the main focus of attention there are plenty of musical pleasures to be found in the morning and in the afternoon, as I discovered on my visit to the final day of the Festival.

This could be described as a day of celebration which began with a piano recital by Mark Bebbington commemorating three composer anniversaries. John Ireland died fifty years ago and his three London pieces evoke so memorably the London he loved. Chelsea Reach portrays the River Thames flowing gracefully along using a recurrent theme which undergoes a number of chromatic transformations. Ragamuffin is a shorter, more cheerful piece in which the soloist made the most of the opportunities for virtuosic display, while the concluding Soho Forenoons evoked images of a stroll through this area of London after a boozy lunch. Mark Bebbington finished his tribute to John Ireland in the countryside with the rippling Amberley Wild Brooks.

There was more water in the next piece flickering, dancing and cascading in the Villa d’Este fountains reminding us that Liszt is in many senses the father of musical Impressionism in music though Mr Bebbington did not neglect to reflect the strong religious underpinning of the work. Then came a brief nod to the Debussy 150th anniversary with a witty account of a music hall clown and a fireworks display full of whizzing catherine wheels and colourful eruptions in the sky.

The third anniversary composer is still with us, though not in person on this occasion. David Briggs, the former cathedral organist at Gloucester, celebrates his first half century this year, but his latest work is not for organ but for piano. The fluid beginning to the first movement seemed a throwback to Impressionism and the fountains of the Villa d’Este – a reminder of Briggs’ admiration for French music – and ended dramatically with a peal of bells. The slow movement was more measured and with some wonderfully chromatic sequences. The toccata-like finale brought to mind Briggs’ renowned improvisatory skills on the organ and Mark Bebbington seemed to be making a superhuman effort to recreate the sound of the King of Instruments with his fast and furious pounding of the keyboard before ending with a series of crashing chords.

My fourth anniversary composer of the day was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who died 100 years ago and whom Charles Villiers Stanford regarded as his star composition pupil. His Clarinet Quintet, with which the Dante Quartet and Robert Plane began their afternoon recital, was written when he was only 19, yet it displays remarkable assurance and confidence and is not dominated by the influence of Brahms, whose own Clarinet Quintet had been composed just a few years earlier. Like Brahms, however, he integrates the clarinet seamlessly with the strings, creating some exquisite textures – in the nocturnal tranquillity of the second movement, for instance. The scherzo is a joyous romp with lively cross-rhythms interrupted by a refined trio, while the finale is a masterful affair which recalls the slow movement towards the end before signing off with a dizzy coda.

I may have been seduced into considering the quintet better than it really is by the commitment shown by the musicians, but then perhaps not. There is nothing juvenile about this work, and if any listeners were dissatified they had the consolation of knowing there were two masterworks to come. As expected, the Dante gave a wonderful account of Dvořák’s American Quartet evoking the composer’s nostalgia for his native Bohemia in the second movement and taking us on what feels like a railway journey in the finale. The excellent Robert Plane rejoined the Quartet for a sublime performance of Brahms’ “autumnal” Clarinet Quintet which at times felt quite summery as if reflecting the weather outside.

There was more music by Coleridge-Taylor in the Olympic Fanfare concert which ended the Festival. (And I gather there will be more at the next Three Choirs’ Festival at Gloucester with a performance of his popular choral work Hiawatha.) Here we had a rare opportunity to sample his orchestral output represented by his Petite Suite de Concert comprising four contrasting movements including a love sonnet and a brilliant tarantella in which Geraint Bowen and the Philharmonia let their hair down.

The Russian victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Bordelino had completely slipped my mind but this took place two centuries ago giving the Festival organisers a good excuse to include Tchaikovsky’s popular 1812 Overture in the final concert – and enabling me to add yet another anniversary to my tally for the day. This proved to be a stirring performance with plenty of energy and noise expended, and I think a cannon was fired. Certainly the whole edifice of the cathedral seemed to shudder at one point, and I hoped this would not lead to further building work being necessary.

When you entitle a concert “Olympic Fanfare” how on earth do you round it off? Obviously with something, big, brassy, noisy and trumphant, and what better composer to choose than Hector Berlioz? Obviously, the Grande Messe des Morts would not set the right tone, but if you want something joyful there is always his Te Deum in which he seeks to recapture the sounds he heard in the Imperial Chapel of St Petersburg and to emulate the massive works performed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods of France’s history.

So the Te Deum it was with massed choirs on the platform and the organ behind the audience answering the orchestra’s antiphonal block chords which open the work and creating an air of expectation. The work is a glorious succession of fugues, marches, praise, hymns (loud) and prayers (a little less loud), each of the six movements leading up to a grand climax. Wynne Evans was the soloist in the Te ergo quaesumus section providing an eloquent respite after the rejoicing which had gone before. Berlioz described this outpouring of sound as “surpassing all the enormities I have been guilty of up to now”, and I can think of no better comment.

At the end of the Te Deum proper there was a bonus. The March for the Presentation of the Colours is optional but just 90 minutes before the opening of the London Olympic Games this was an inspired way to end. Festival volunteers processed along the aisle and line up on the stage bearing the flags of several nations – a colourful end to the latest instalment of Britain’s oldest music festival with an astounding performance from singers, organists and the mighty Philharmonia all held together by the ever-watchful Geraint Bowen.

Outline plans are already available for next year’s Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. See

Roger Jones