United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (4). Sophie Gallagher (soprano), Patrick Dunachie (counter-tenor), Ruairi Bowen (tenor|), Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir, Christopher Allsop (organ), Peter Nardone (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 27.7.2015 (JQ)
Bernstein – Chichester Psalms (1965)
Bob Chilcott – Requiem (2010)
The Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir has been a very welcome feature of festival programmes since 2010 though I’ve not previously had the opportunity to hear them. The choir is formed each year, I believe, specifically to give a concert in the Festival and it’s open to singers aged between 16 and 25 from the three counties that form the festival’s catchment area. For this concert there were 26 singers. I noted that because the choir includes some male altos there were actually more male than female singers on stage. That’s most encouraging when you think of all the comments that one hears these days about the difficulties of recruiting boys into choirs. The three very accomplished soloists were also young singers
The chosen programme was both attractive and challenging. Though both works can be performed with orchestra each has an alternative scoring for small ensemble and it was in these respective slimmed-down versions that we heard both pieces.
Bernsteins’s Chichester Psalms was given in the composer’s own reduction for an accompaniment of organ, harp and percussion. In the first movement Bernstein set verses from Psalms 108 and 100. I didn’t feel there was sufficient bite and projection in the choral singing. Was this due to nerves or insufficient confidence in the music? Perhaps the need to sing in Hebrew was an issue? At times they were rather swamped by the accompaniment, something for which I don’t blame Christopher Allsop and his unnamed colleagues – the gifted young instrumentalists who took part in this concert should all have been named in the programme but, with the exception of Mr Allsop, they weren’t.
The second movement takes words from Psalms 23 and 2. The movement was dominated, rightly, by counter-tenor Patrick Dunachie, who was the excellent soloist. His voice rang out expressively and plangently. He gave a most musical performance which I enjoyed very much. In the faster central section, where almost aggressive lines from Psalm 2 interrupt the soloist’s richly melodic music, I felt that Peter Nardone was slightly too cautious in his pacing; as a consequence the choir’s interjection made a less than full impact. The last movement, which is a setting of lines from Psalms 131 and 133, is arguably the most memorable of the three movements and it received the best performance. Bernstein’s easily flowing music was well sung and the hushed ending in which material from the first movement is reprised quietly and a capella was both excellent and moving.
Bob Chilcott’s Requiem exists in 2 versions: one for medium sized orchestra, which I’ve yet to hear, and one for a small ensemble. That’s the version which I’ve heard Wells Cathedral Choir use on disc (review) and live (review); it was the one chosen by Peter Nardone for this performance. The ensemble comprises flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, timpani and organ and even in a large building it works well. Here the playing of the instrumentalists was very good.
The Requiem is a fine piece, which is rewarding to sing or hear. It was noticeable at once that the choir’s singing was more confident and more strongly projected. Though the Bernstein is a super piece I wonder if these young singers had found that Chilcott’s work, which uses the more familiar text of the Latin Mass for the Dead, is one which evoked a greater response. In preparing the performance the choir had had the opportunity to rehearse it for a day with the composer and I suspect his highly motivating guidance must have had quite an impact on them.
The Youth Choir gave a very fine account of the score. Where necessary their singing had punch – the ‘Libera eas’ section of the second movement being a case in point. But there was also lots of sensitivity and in a work which is primarily gentle and lyrical that’s crucial. I admired the intensity which they brought to the penultimate movement, the only one in English. The balance between choir and ensemble was good throughout the performance.
Chilcott uses two soloists. Soprano Sophie Gallagher offered poised, clear singing and made a good job of the touching ‘Pie Jesu’. Tenor Ruairi Bowen gave us even more. He has a light but strong voice, evenly produced throughout its compass – the top of his voice was easy and free. He seemed to have no problem in projecting down the cathedral nave and his diction was excellent. Chilcott, a tenor himself, has given his soloist some winning music and I thought Bowen’s voice was ideally suited. Perhaps one should not be surprised. He is the grandson of the distinguished tenor, Kenneth Bowen: the term “a chip off the old block” springs to mind.
Peter Nardone conducted the piece very well. I timed his performance at about 36 minutes, which is very close to the approximate duration of 35 minutes specified in the score. This is interesting because the CD performance plays for nearly 42 minutes and the composer himself took a similar length of time when conducting a workshop performance which I took part in a couple of years ago. Yet at no time today did Mr Nardone’s tempi seem inappropriate or hasty.
I enjoyed this performance of the Chilcott Requiem very much. During it we heard some fine and committed singing by these young musicians.
There’s to be more music by Bob Chilcott during this Festival. The Three Choirs Festival has commissioned a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis from him and these will be unveiled at Choral Evensong on Wednesday 29 July at 15:30: that will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.
Full details of the 2015 Three Choirs Festival are at www.3choirs.org