Local Boy Makes Very Good in Gloucester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Verdi. Emma Bell (soprano), Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor). Three Choirs Festival. Gloucester Cathedral, 29.7.2013 (JQ)

Wagner: Tannhäuser – Overture
Wesendonck Lieder (orch. Felix Mottl)
Verdi: Four Sacred Pieces

The first major choral and orchestral concert of the 2013 Three Choirs Festival was led by a celebrity guest conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy (review). The following night’s hugely demanding orchestral programme of mainly English music was conducted by the Festival Director, Adrian Partington. Sadly, I missed that concert though I’ve heard very good reports of it. Monday evening brought another guest conductor but one with a strong local connection for Edward Gardner was born in Gloucester and was a chorister at the cathedral before continuing his musical education as a choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge. Though not yet forty, Gardner has been music director of English National Opera since 2007 and from 2015 he is to be chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. I should say straightaway that while I had some reservations about Vladimir Ashkenazy’s conducting I thought Edward Gardner’s direction of this concert was masterly.

Given his operatic pedigree – he was previously music director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera (2004-7) – Gardner was a logical choice to direct the Three Choirs Festival’s bicentenary homage to Wagner and Verdi. He opened with a thrilling rendition of the Tannhäuser Overture. The nobility of the Pilgrims’ Hymn music was beautifully stated at the opening – and its grandeur was equally well conveyed later on – and in between Gardner conducted the quicker Venusberg music with plenty of dash. He exhibits a natural authority on the podium with an expressive though not excessively demonstrative stick technique and he secured fine playing from the Philharmonia.

I imagine many people booked their tickets for this concert in order to hear Sarah Connolly, a firm Festival favourite, in the Wesendonck Lieder. Unfortunately, Miss Connolly was indisposed and at short notice she was replaced by Emma Bell. By the time Miss Bell had sung her first couple of phrases I’m sure that any disappointment at the absence of Sarah Connolly had been banished. In the first song, ‘Der Engel’ Miss Bell’s voice was beautifully produced. The tone was warm and rich and the notes sounded truly and easily throughout the whole compass of her voice. Her singing was expressive without any trace of unwanted histrionics. Above all, the vocal line was seamless. I mention all this because these qualities proved to be hallmarks of Emma Bell’s performance of all five songs.

Her account of the third song, ‘Im Treibhaus’ was rapt, the vocal line floated most beautifully; particularly pleasing were some wonderfully placed and sustained high notes. The orchestral accompaniment could best be described as refined but, then, that was true of the whole performance; a wonderfully tranquil oboe solo at the end of ‘Stehe still’ was just one ravishing detail that caught my ear. Edward Gardner proved himself a most sensitive accompanist throughout the performance. ‘Träume’ was simply wonderful. The Philharmonia ushered in the song on a soft carpet of sound. Miss Bell sang with fine feeling; everything in her performance was marvellously judged and controlled and in this final song the quality of her soft singing reached a new peak of excellence. This was an outstanding performance. Emma Bell and the Philharmonia under Edward Gardner’s perceptive direction offered us a very special experience and I fancy that when we look back on the festival at the end of the week this performance will prove to be one of the highlights, possibly the highlight. One final thought. Miss Bell is classified as a soprano – and she should know. However, though her top notes were utterly secure she also possesses a fine lower register and I do wonder if, in time, she may follow the likes of Dame Felicity Palmer and become a mezzo. I would be very interested, for example, to hear her as The Angel in Gerontius.

Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces are not heard as often as they should be, even though they contain much very fine music, and I was delighted that Adrian Partington, in designing his programme, had chosen to mark Verdi’s bicentenary with this music rather than the predictable Requiem. There may have been a price to pay at the box office for there were a surprising number of empty seats but the programming enterprise was rewarded by a superb performance.

I imagine that many choral societies may be deterred from performing the Four Sacred Pieces because the forces required for a work lasting only for some 40 minutes are rather unusual, reflecting the fact that Verdi did not compose the pieces as a set. A substantial orchestra – including, lavishly, four bassoons – is specified, but only for two of the pieces. The other two pieces, which are unaccompanied, are short but contain some very testing harmonic writing. On this occasion both of those two pieces were performed by a semi-chorus. It’s a long time since I heard these pieces performed live so the opportunity to experience a performance was not to be missed.

Ave Maria was first performed in 1895 but was possibly composed some years earlier. It must be very difficult to start a performance of the Four Sacred Pieces ‘cold’ with this unaccompanied piece but the semi-chorus from the Festival Chorus made an excellent job of it. They were undaunted by the complexities of the harmonies and I particularly admired the tone of the tenors. The powerful, darkly dramatic Stabat Mater (1897) in the last music that Verdi composed and it’s almost a miniature summary of his operatic style as he responds to the various images of the medieval poem. In fact the piece strikes me as quintessential Verdi, not least in its dramatic thrust and responsiveness. The full forces were involved here and both choir and orchestra were splendid, the singing and playing exhibiting great commitment. Edward Gardner, no stranger to conducting Verdi in the pit, was surefooted and dynamic in his direction.

The third piece, Laudi alla Vergine Maria (1887) stands out from its companions in that the sung text is in Italian rather than Latin. Composed for four-part female chorus (SSAA) the music is some of the most challenging in the entire set. The small group of ladies from the Festival Chorus sang this cruelly exposed music with splendid assurance and accuracy. The Te Deum (1896) is a great piece of music. The very opening, for male chorus, is an unaccompanied plainchant intonation. There’s no dynamic marking so the conductor has to make a decision. I was mildly disappointed that Gardner had this sung quite strongly – I would have preferred it sung softly as though from a distance – but thereafter the music was quietly sung, as directed in the score, meaning that the great, blazing outburst on the word ‘Sanctus’ made a thrilling impact. In this piece Gardner brought out all the weight and drama in the music where applicable but there was suitable sensitivity in the many passages of more delicate music. Whether singing full out or quietly the choir was magnificent, showing tremendous commitment. The great wall of sound at the words ‘Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine’ was a thrilling moment. The orchestra were similarly galvanised by Gardner’s leadership and produced consistently fine playing. In the closing pages the short but vital soprano solo was expertly delivered by an unnamed member of the Festival Chorus. The enigmatic hushed ending was brought off marvellously and, thankfully, the audience maintained an appreciative silence long after the last note had died away.

This was an exceptionally fine concert. As a chorister in the Gloucester Cathedral choir Edward Gardner sang in Three Choirs festivals, probably in the late 1980s, so this wasn’t his festival debut. Returning to Three Choirs on this occasion he was indisputably in command of the proceedings. Warmly welcomed at the start of the evening he was greeted even more warmly at the end and justly so having shown his home town audience what an inspiring conductor he has become. Let us hope that his busy schedule will not prevent him from returning as a guest conductor again in the future.

John Quinn