Three Choirs Festival Celebrates Love and Makes a Spiritual Journey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Three Choirs Festival Nielsen, Mathias: Sarah Fox (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Claudia Huckle (contralto), Robert Murray (tenor), David Stout (baritone), Barnaby Rea (bass), Choristers of the Three Cathedral Choirs, Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Peter Nardone (conductor), Three Choirs Festival, The Cathedral, Hereford, 30.7.2015. (RJ)

 Carl Nielsen: Hymnus Amoris
William Mathias: Lux Aeterna

The Thursday of this year’s Three Choirs Festival could well   have been branded Welsh Day. In the afternoon the Cathedral hosted a spectacular concert by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, while the evening choral concert was devoted to a large scale work by one of the most significant Welsh composers of the 20th century – William Mathias.

But first the Festival made its contribution to the Carl Nielsen 150 anniversary celebrations with a performance of his Hymnus Armoris, praising the power of love. This is a relatively early work by the Danish composer dating from 1896, and was inspired by Titian’s painting The Miracle of a Jealous Husband. The original libretto by Axel Olrik was translated into Latin as Nielsen felt it would be easier to sing and would convey the universal emotion of human love more effectively.

The first section focuses on childhood with the boy choristers singing a quatrain Love gives me life, which was then taken up by the whole choir. Tenor Robert Murray and Sarah Fox alternated in the section on youth,  Love is my craving and my desire, and were later joined by the choir. Manhood was then celebrated by the male chorus (Love is my spring) which was interrupted by a doleful soprano solo, Love is my grief; but the section returned to the earlier joyousness ending on a distinctly affirmative note.

The temperature dropped as the three male soloists considered the circumstances of the old in Love in my peace, but the mood was brightened by an angelic choir of choristers, which in turn prompted a exultant response from the soprano and tenor and led into a glorification of love. Hymnus Armoris is an appealing work and Peter Nardone’s incisive and lively conducting elicited a very committed performance from orchestra and singers.

Lux Aeterna was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and received its first performance under Roy Massey, the then director of music at Hereford Cathedral, who recalls his happy relationship with Mathias in the Festival programme book. The work is scored for chorus, large orchestra, boys choir and three female soloists and draws on a variety of texts: the Requiem Mass, the Mass in ordinary, Veni, sponsa Christi, the Vespers for Trinity Sunday (all sung by the choir), four anthems to the Virgin Mary (sung by the choristers) and four poems by St John of the Cross (translated by Roy Campbell and performed by the three soloists). Dedicated to the memory of his mother it explores the tensions between the light of heaven and the earth’s dark night of the soul.

The work began with a vocal peal of bells followed by a lively and charming Ave Maria from the boy choristers. A lengthy solo by contralto Claudia Huckle, The Song of the Soul that is glad to know God by faith, created a strong nocturnal atmosphere and the first part ended with a reflective Kyrie eleison from the chorus.

A fanfare heralded the second section and an outburst of excitement in the Domine Jesu Christe. The choristers further brightened the proceedings with Alma redemptoris mater which was followed by an expressive Song of the Soul in intimate communication and union with the love of God from mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston. The choristers returned with a reverent Ave, regina caelorum after which the chorus pleaded for perpetual light to shine.

The mood changed dramatically in the third part of the work with anguished pleading from the chorus for delivery from the fires of hell.  This was accompanied by a terrific explosion of sound from Philharmonia Orchestra which brought home the terror that the Day of Judgement inspires. The succeeding the Agnus Dei from the boys choir offered balm to the fearful and more reassurance came from the Song of the Soul in rapture at having arrived at the height of the perfection sung with conviction by soprano Sarah Fox as she is led through the darkness by an inner light. An energetic Veni sponsa Christi from the chorus strongly supported by brass and percussion was followed by the Benedictus and hosannas from the choristers. There was another change of mood with a solemn meditation on the opening of St John’s Gospel from the soloists and a triumphant outpouring of praise by the choir in the Gloria. After the Sanctus (from the soloists) and the choristers’ Agnus Dei the forces began to come together in an impressive conclusion which included another ravishing contribution, Ave, maris stella, from the choristers and a Requiem aeternam sensitively delivered by Sarah Fox.

Roy Massey describes the premiere of the work in these terms: “The vocal writing throughout was wonderfully varied moving from the numinous and atmospheric to textures and rhythms generating immense energy and excitement. The solo parts singly and in ensemble, were also beautifully realised and very expressive. The orchestration showed a sureness of touch and control of orchestral sonority which enhanced the text in a remarkable manner. All in all, the work was strikingly effective.”

These comments certainly hold true of tonight’s performance in which Peter Nardone galvanised the choir and orchestra into a performance of great emotional depth. The three well matched soloists each brought their own distinctive contribution to the   work, but I really must single out the young choristers of the three cathedral choirs for their truly exceptional singing which added vibrancy and freshness to this wonderful concert.

Lux Aeterna turned out to be a far more substantial and emotionally riveting work than I was expecting, and it is surprising that music of such magnificence and quality has not become one of the mainstays of the Festival along with the oratorios of Elgar and Bach. The reception it was accorded by the large and enthusiastic audience suggests that the Three Choirs Festival no longer needs to rely on eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century choral works for its bread and butter.


Roger Jones

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