A Celebration of Sacred and Secular Music: Preview of 2013 Three Choirs Festival.

A Celebration of Sacred and Secular Music: Preview of 2013 Three Choirs Festival 2013. (JQ)

Gloucester Cathedral
Gloucester Cathedral

The Three Choirs Festival is probably the oldest music festival in the world; is there another festival that has been in existence for nearly 300 years? The 286th festival takes place between 27 July and 4 August and this year it’s the turn of the city of Gloucester to play host. That means that the Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral, Adrian Partington, is Artistic Director of the Festival. He has devised a programme of 61 events in the course of which he includes several works that were first heard in 1913. He also marks the anniversaries of several composers, including Britten, Hindemith, Verdi and Wagner. In addition Mr Partington pays a pleasing tribute to one of his distinguished predecessors: the tenth anniversary of the death of John Sanders, Organist of Gloucester Cathedral from 1967 to 1994, is marked by the inclusion of several of his excellent pieces of church music.

Two 1913 works are included in the programme for the first evening concert: Rachmaninov’s choral symphony, The Bells, and Luonnotar, the remarkable scena for solo soprano and orchestra by Sibelius. It may not be widely known that this piece was a commission for the 1913 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival – so you could say it’s being brought home for this concert. A guest conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, will be on the podium and he will also conduct Elgar’s vibrant In the South (27 July, 19.45). A couple of days later another guest conductor features. Edward Gardner, the music director of English National Opera, was born and bred in Gloucester, and as a cathedral chorister sang in the Three Choirs Festival, I believe. On this occasion he’ll be firmly in charge of proceedings, however, in a programme that includes Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder; the latter are to be sung by a Three Choirs favourite, Sarah Connolly (29 July, 19.45).

The third guest conductor will be the noted baroque specialist, John Butt, who’ll direct the three cathedral choirs, soloists and his Dunedin Consort orchestra in Handel’s Messiah. To judge by John Butt’s distinguished recordings we can expect a scholarly but vital performance (30 July, 15.00)

Adrian Partington himself will direct several interesting programmes. One such comprises English music – Walton, Elgar and Holst (The Planets) – alongside Komarov’s Fall by the Australian contemporary composer, Brett Dean (28 July, 19.45). He’ll conduct another 1913 work, Elgar’s Falstaff, as well as Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (2 August, 19.45) and then give us more Elgar the following night when The Dream of Gerontius will be prefaced, very appropriately, by the Prelude to Parsifal (3 August, 19.15)

The other two cathedral directors of music have a major concert each. Hereford’s Geraint Bowen will be in charge of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is to be played by the period instrument ensemble, the Florilegium Orchestra (31 July, 19.45). Worcester’s Peter Nardone conducts a piece that used to be a great favourite with choral societies but is rarely heard nowadays: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s The Song of Hiawatha (1 August, 19.45). I’ve never heard the work live so this will be a fascinating opportunity to put that right.

The music of Arvo Pärt features midway through the Festival. Stephen Layton, Polyphony and the Philharmonia perform his Berliner Messe in a programme that juxtaposes Pärt with the Second Symphony of Sibelius (30 July, 19.45) and later that evening Pärt’s Stabat Mater and pieces by Gesualdo will be sung in the cathedral by Musica Beata (30 July, 22.15).

Song recitals have always been a staple of the Three Choirs Festival. One of the most eye-catching recitals this year will be a rare chance to hear a complete performance of Hindemith’s cycle of Rilke poems, Das Marienleben. This performance, marking the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, will be given in English by soprano Der-Shin Hwang accompanied by James D’Angelo (31 July, 14.30). A recital by baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Susie Allan is sure to be popular though the programme is a challenging one. Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake is perhaps the most familiar item on the programme which also includes the first performance of some new songs by the German composer, Torsten Rasch (b. 1965). A couple of Blake settings by Roderick Williams himself will be heard along with songs by Bridge, Holst and others (30 July, 11.00).There will be more Britten – On This Island and Les Illuminations – in the recital by Andrew Kennedy (tenor) and Joseph Middleton (piano). Kennedy will also sing songs by John Sanders, Poulenc and Ravel and give the première of a Festival commission, I can hear you waiting, by John O’Hara (2 August, 11.00). O’Hara’s music will also feature in the final event of the Festival, a community opera, The Bargee’s Wife, which he will conduct. Karen Hayes provides the libretto for both works (4 August, 19.45).

Mention should also be made of a joint recital by soprano Catherine Bott and countertenor James Bowman, ‘Bott and Bowman’s Summer Serenade.’ This is billed as “a captivating recital celebrating a long friendship. After a serious first half the second half promises “Summer surprises and a trip to the seaside with Elgar, Gershwin, Gilbert and Sullivan and Flanders and Swann…” It sounds fun! (2 August, 14.30)

There are a number of chamber music concerts and organ recitals too. Especially enticing is the opportunity, early on in the festival, to hear Peter Donohoe play piano music by Schumann, Wagner (arranged by Liszt) and by Liszt himself, the monumental B minor Sonata (27 July, 14.30).

I’ve mentioned just 15 of the 61 events that feature in this Festival. Full details of all the programmes can be found here. As usual, Evensong will be celebrated nearly every day of the festival, including some wonderful sacred music. One of these services will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 as the weekly Choral Evensong. The anthem for this Evensong will be John Rutter’s fine Hymn to the Creator of Light, which was sung for the very first time in 1992 during a Three Choirs Festival Evensong when the Herbert Howells memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral was dedicated; I was among the congregation on that occasion and remember it well (31 July, 15.30).

The Philharmonia Orchestra will be in residence throughout the week and, of course, the Festival Chorus will provide the backbone of the festival. Postal booking opens to the public on 15 April. From the same date telephone bookings can be made on 0845 652 1823. On line booking is available from 18 April. Details of how to book can be found here.

John Quinn