A Heart-Warming Evening in the Gloucester Wigwam

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Hye-Youn Lee (soprano), Robin Tritschler (tenor), Benedict Nelson (bass), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Peter Nardone (conductor), Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester Cathedral, 1.8.2013 (JQ)

The Song of Hiawatha

I   Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast (1898)
II  The Death of Minnehaha (1899)
III Hiawatha’s Departure (1900)

On what was the hottest day so far this year in many parts of the UK a large but not quite sell-out audience convened for this latest Three Choirs Festival concert. So warm was the evening that after the interval the male members of the Philharmonia discarded their jackets.

At the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 2012 we heard a revival of a substantial English choral work, once popular with choral societies but now rarely heard. That was Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims, which I greatly enjoyed (review) and I’m delighted to see that this was not a one-off performance: Hereford Choral Society will be reviving it next March. Not to be outdone, the Gloucester festival has picked up the baton on behalf of The Song of Hiawatha by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

Coleridge-Taylor’s music has enjoyed a mini-renaissance in recent years, at least on CD. There has been more than one excellent recording of his fine Violin Concerto (review review) and a disc of some of his chamber music is also well worth seeking out (review). However, his music still remains a rarity in our concert halls. On the face of it that’s surprising since all the music of his that I’ve heard is attractive. As far as I know only one recording has been made of the complete Hiawatha trilogy, a 1990 Decca version conducted by Kenneth Alwyn and with a strong team of soloists, including Bryn Terfel. Sadly, I don’t think that’s currently available though it’s a fine recording (review).

It’s worth pausing briefly to reflect on Coleridge-Taylor’s life. He was of mixed-race parentage: his father, a doctor, returned to his native Sierra Leone, possibly even before Samuel was born, leaving his white mother to raise him. Thanks to good fortune in attracting the support of one or two enlightened patrons the boy had a decent education and his prowess as a violinist gained him a place at the Royal College of Music in 1890, where in due course he became a composition pupil of Stanford. It must be remembered that in the late 19th– and early 20th century attitudes to coloured people in Britain could have placed significant obstacles in the way of someone like Coleridge-Taylor but his talent won through and he achieved significant celebrity before his life was tragically cut short. His abilities were such that Elgar, no less, considered him ‘far away the cleverest among the young men’ and this regard produced a link with the Three Choirs Festival in 1898. In his comprehensive book, Three Choirs: A History of the Festivals (1992) Anthony Boden reprints a letter from August Jaeger to Dr. Herbert Brewer which seconds Elgar’s recommendation that Coleridge-Taylor be invited to compose an orchestral work in Elgar’s stead for the 1898 Gloucester festival. At three months’ notice the young composer produced his Ballade in A minor and the first performance, which he conducted, was a great success. Over the next five years Coleridge-Taylor made further Festival appearances conducting his music, culminating in the first performance of The Atonement in 1903.

I’m sure that Martin Lee-Browne is right to say in his excellent essay about the composer in the festival programme that the “simply phenomenal” popularity of Coleridge-Taylor’s music reflected the taste of “a public inclined towards lighter, rather than serious music.” This popularity survived his premature death, not least due to frequent performances of all or parts of the Hiawatha trilogy. Most celebrated of all were the Royal Choral Society performances in full costume under Sargent between 1924 and 1939. I’m sure the members of the Festival Chorus were glad that they weren’t required to follow suit on this hot evening when they must have thought that they were singing in what was described at one point in the text as a “sultry wigwam.” Each summer in the pre-war days the RCS performed the trilogy for a fortnight to capacity audiences in the Royal Albert Hall. Indeed, my friend who accompanied me to this concert told me that her father was a member of the Society towards the end of that period and sang in some of these performances; she followed the performance in his score, which included many of her father’s pencilled-in instructions.

I suppose it was the war that brought an end to the popularity of entertainments such as this; the RCS did not revive the tradition after 1945 and Hiawatha, and indeed, Coleridge-Taylor’s music in general – lapsed into neglect. This Three Choirs performance was, I think, the first occasion when the work has been heard at the Festival and I myself had not heard the complete trilogy beyond Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast until I listened to the Alwyn recording in doing my homework prior to this concert.

Coleridge-Taylor composed the Hiawatha trilogy in three separate parts between 1898 and 1900 and by 1901 he had also composed an orchestral overture though this is usually omitted in performances of the trilogy, as was the case tonight. The work was an immediate and major success. For his text Coleridge-Taylor took the long narrative poem, The Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Longfellow was very sympathetic to the indigenous North Americans and in his poem, which is consciously modelled on the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, he offers a Romantic – some would say rose-tinted – view of their history and culture. The character of Hiawatha himself seems to me to be a classic example of the myth of the Noble Savage, not least in the episode in Part III where Christian missionaries arrive; the encounter between them and the Indians is depicted in a way which we now know doesn’t quite accord with historical reality.

There was much to enjoy in this performance, though it was a very long evening – two and a half hours, including an interval. The chorus will sing more technically demanding music during this week – Belshazzar’s Feast, for a start – but Coleridge-Taylor gives his choir an awful lot of singing to do. In the face of so much music – and a very warm temperature – the Festival Chorus never flagged once. Indeed, on the contrary, they sang with commitment and evident enjoyment all evening. I can only fault them in two ways: often their words were indistinct – but, in mitigation, the cathedral acoustic is very resonant – and I don’t believe they produced a genuine piano all evening. That latter criticism applies also to the Philharmonia. Their playing was spirited and vibrant, bringing out all the colour and inventiveness in Coleridge-Taylor’s scoring but I’m afraid they fell into the old trap of playing too loudly, which probably had an effect on the choir’s dynamics and clarity of diction. To be honest, the volume of the performance became wearing as the evening progressed.

The soloists have less to do that the chorus. Indeed, there is only one solo number in the whole of Part I. That’s the celebrated tenor aria, ‘Onaway! Awake, beloved’. It can’t be easy for the tenor to sit through some thirty minutes of music and then stand and deliver this music.  Robin Tritschler’s voice was very pleasing indeed, his voice has a good ring to it and there were some fine top notes, not least the top B flat near the end. However, he didn’t seem to me to relax into the solo – perhaps he was nervous – and the tone didn’t open up as it should have done. I detected no sense of rapture in this love song and, in fact, he looked pretty serious all the time he was singing it. Happily, he did himself much more justice in his Part III solos.

I heard Benedict Nelson last year in English National Opera’s production of Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which he made a strong impression (review). On this occasion he wasn’t so convincing. The core of his voice is solid: he produces a very nice sound. However, my main problem with him was one of clarity.  At any time when I looked up and stopped following the performance in my score I found it very difficult, sometimes impossible, to discern what words he was singing. Furthermore, it seemed to me that quite a number of notes were not hit truly; though this issue receded as the performance proceeded I never felt it had disappeared completely. That’s rather a pity for to the baritone falls some of the most noble music in the score, not least towards the end of Part III. He offered some ardent singing at times, however, especially in passages in Part II and in his last solo towards the end of Part III

The stand-out soloist was the Korean soprano, Hye-Youn Lee. Her biography includes an impressive list of dramatic operatic roles and, my goodness, was that pedigree in evidence here. She showed a fine vocal presence and the sound of her voice was thrilling. Her top was most impressive but the voice was exciting and well produced throughout its compass. She was also the most expressive of the soloists. Not only did she excel when the music was dramatic but also she was capable of some genuinely touching singing. I missed her in what was, by all accounts, a splendid performance of the Vier letzte Lieder in Gloucester Cathedral not long ago but I hope to hear this exciting singer again soon.

Peter Nardone did a fine job on the rostrum. I wish he had insisted on more in the way of quiet dynamics but he conducted with evident relish and enthusiasm. This seemed to me to be anything but a dutiful performance of a neglected score. He conducted with belief and inspired his performers. Apart from anything else it is no small feat to maintain the performers’ energy levels and enthusiasm throughout a long, tiring evening. Wisely, he made a couple of small cuts in Part III. The excision of these passages did no harm; frankly, in Part III Coleridge-Taylor’s imaginative fires burn a little less brightly at times.

I suppose the reality is that The Song of Hiawatha is a work that has probably had its day and it can hope for no more than the occasional revival, at least as a complete trilogy. That may be understandable – for one thing the public appetite for long choral works seems to have waned outside festivals such as Three Choirs and the Proms – but it’s a pity. Coleridge-Taylor’s piece is consistently accessible, enjoyable and tuneful, even if his use of leitmotifs means that his tunes tend sometimes to get stretched rather a long way. I found it an entertaining work – and I mean that as a compliment – and I’m very glad that the Three Choirs Festival has not only given me the chance to hear it live but, moreover, in a committed and polished performance that did the composer proud.

The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and will be broadcast in September.


John Quinn