A Vital Performance of Carmina Burana at the Three Choirs Festival


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (13) –  Phibbs, Elgar. Walton, Orff: Ilona Domnich (soprano), Russell Painter (tenor), David Stout (baritone), Gloucester Cathedral Junior Choir/Nia Llewellyn Jones (conductor); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra/Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 30.7. 2016. (JQ)

Joseph PhibbsMemento Musica (Festival commission; world premiere)

Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme (‘Enigma’), Op 36

Walton – ‘Spitfire’ Prelude and Fugue

OrffCarmina Burana

This programme had a slightly odd construction; one might have expected Carmina Burana to stand alone in the second half, instead of which it was prefaced by the Walton piece. I suppose the issue was that both the Phibbs and Walton pieces were, essentially ‘opening numbers’.

For the second time in the week the Festival welcomed royal visitors. On this occasion it was the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester; the Duke is one of the Patrons of the Gloucester Festival.

Joseph Phibbs’ new piece was written for this occasion. It’s not the first time that Adrian Partington has programmed one of his orchestral pieces at the Festival: at the 2012 Hereford festival he conducted Rivers to the Sea, a rather longer piece (review). This new work by Phibbs (b 1974) was commissioned in association with the charity Mindsong so, in a way it brought me back full circle to James Gilchrist’s recital on the opening day (review). In a programme note the composer explains that Memento Musica is based on one of the earliest surviving fully-notated musical melodies, the Song of Seikilos, which dates back to c. 100 BC. The piece is a set of miniature variations on the theme though the theme is only revealed in full, by the brass, towards the end. In that respect Phibbs, probably unconsciously, follows the precedent of the masterly Meditations on a Theme of John Blow by Sir Arthur Bliss. (Now there’s a work worthy of revival at Three Choirs.) But the piece to which Phibbs, in his words, actually “gives a nod” is Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations.

How does the piece fit with the work of Mindsong, a charity that uses music to work with sufferers from dementia? I can do no better than quote the composer. “The use of song (and melody) – a key part of Mindsong’s work – ….lies at the heart of the piece and the simple device of musical repetition, as found in most traditional forms, is here linked consciously to psycho-musical perception: how the effect of working towards something already partially familiar (my italics) can form a crucial part of how we perceive and follow musical structure and narrative.”

I had read Phibbs’ description of the piece well in advance but I have to admit that on a first hearing I failed to discern the structural shape which he describes; but that would surely come with greater familiarity. The piece, which played for some seven minutes, opens with brass proclamations over scurrying strings. The fast, driving music of the first couple of minutes, here delivered with admirable momentum, put me slightly in mind of John Adams’ Short Ride in Fast Machine. A slackening of the pace for a passage that included solos for various wind and brass instruments proved to be only a brief pause; the music soon gathered speed once again and was bright, colourful and energetic. A flute solo, accompanied by harp and shimmering strings, brought another brief passage of relaxation. Perhaps the quieter interludes in the score are meant to represent the mind attempting in moments of calm to recollect past memories? Phibbs then gathered his forces for a big, brass-dominated conclusion. Memento Musica made a colourful start to the programme. It is engaging and if I say that it is also entertaining I don’t mean to imply superficiality; I’m sure there’s a lot more under the surface of the piece which I couldn’t grasp on a single hearing. The composer was present and looked delighted at the calibre and quality of this first performance from the Philharmonia and Adrian Partington.

We were on much more familiar ground with Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations. Adrian Partington shaped the Theme itself – the composer – affectionately as he did the first variation, which portrays Alice Elgar, the warm sound of the Philharmonia doing the music full justice. I liked the mix of depth and delicacy in ‘R.P.A.’. In complete contrast the brass and timpani made a splendid sound in ‘Troyte’. ‘Nimrod’ was beautifully done. I did not expect for one minute that Mr Partington would be one of those conductors who mistakenly treat this music as an elegy and I was right. A.E. Jaeger, immortalised in this wonderful music, was still very much alive at the time that it was written and a performance faithful to Elgar’s intentions must imbue the music with dignity and warmth, which is exactly what we got tonight, the climax noble and unforced. It was such a pity that a volley of coughs from some members of the audience marred the hushed opening.

‘B.G.N’ was a highlight of the performance. The warm, full tone of the Philharmonia’s cello section was a delight, the music romantically moulded by Adrian Partington. When the violins joined in the melody the generous sound of the tune played on the G string was in itself worth the price of admission. ‘Romanza (***)’ famously includes a quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, played by the clarinet. Here these allusions were delivered by the Philharmonia’s principal (Mark van de Wiel, I presume) with the utmost sensitivity, the sound magically distanced on each occasion. And so to the finale ‘EDU’, where the composer reappears. Here, however, we experience a man transformed from the somewhat introspective figure encountered in the Theme. Now, strengthened by the support of ‘my friends pictured within’ we see a confident, optimistic person, ready to take on the world. Adrian Partington and the Philharmonia gave us a full-blooded, assertive performance which was crowned towards the end by the mighty sound of the cathedral’s organ, courtesy of Jonathan Hope. This was a very fine performance and interpretation of Elgar’s masterly Variations.

In the interval I was strongly tempted to visit the Festival Village to fortify myself for Carmina Burana with a refreshing glass of ‘Partingtons’s Potion’. (The admirable Wye Valley Brewery has rechristened one of its excellent ales in honour of the Artistic Director: has this ever happened before at a Three Choirs Festival?) However, I decided that I was “on duty” so I should forego – or postpone – that pleasure.

Before Orff’s choral work we heard Walton’s ‘Spitfire’ Prelude and Fugue Walton extracted this concert piece from the music he wrote for the 1942 Leslie Howard film, The First of the Few, which told the story of the design and development by R J Mitchell of the Spitfire fighter which was so crucial in the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain. The Gloster Aircraft Company played a key role in British aviation design and although it was not, I think, involved in the Spitfire it did manufacture the sister aircraft, the Hurricane. The inclusion of Walton’s music tonight celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Royal Aeronautical Society. One of the Society’s many achievements was its involvement in Sir Frank Whittle’s development of the jet engine. And there’s a strong Gloucester connection here because the UK’s first jet plane, the E28/39, was built by the Gloster Aircraft Company and the plane’s maiden flight was made in 1941 from the company’s base at Brockworth between Cheltenham and Gloucester – a site now occupied by housing, industrial and warehouse units and the inevitable Tesco supermarket.

I love this Walton piece and Adrian Partington declared ‘chocks away’ in style, giving the noble, aspiring theme of the Prelude just the right amount of space while ensuring that the music rumbled down the runway with purpose. Once we were airborne the Fugue was brilliant and dashing – this was one of a number of occasions when the conductor’s decision to divide the violins left and right – mainly for the Elgar, I guess – paid dividends. Midway through the Fugue, during a brief passage of repose I enjoyed very much the tender violin solo from the leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay.  The return of the Prelude theme at the climax of the Fugue made just the right majestic effect.

I will freely admit that I am not a fan of Carmina Burana. I can easily understand why it has become such a favourite: it has ear-worm tunes, often-exciting rhythms and lots of vivid colour. I’ve heard it many times and have sung in it but it’s a piece that has never ‘done it’ for me. Perhaps my cordial aversion to it explains why until tonight I’d never attended a live performance as a member of the audience. It’s an all-or-nothing score; nothing is achieved by half measures, quite the contrary in fact. The only way to approach it is to go for it – not in a crude sense, of course – which is exactly what Adrian Partington and his assembled crowd of musical revellers did.

The opening ‘O Fortuna’ packed a punch and in the music that followed I admired the choir’s precision; their crisp singing in ‘Fortuna plango vulnera’ was also good. We had only got to the third number, ‘Veris leta facies’ when we had the first interjections of coughing obbligati from the audience. Sadly, this was to be a feature of the whole performance. I fail to understand why people appear to make no effort to stifle coughs, seemingly reserving the coughs for moments of quiet or silence; it’s so disruptive.

‘Omnia Sol temperat’ introduced us to baritone, David Stout. He impressed from the start with warm-toned, firm and well-projected singing. It was also evident that he was relishing the text. Most of the remaining numbers in Part I are, I’m afraid, repetitive in that during each of these numbers Orff just repeats the same music and scoring for every stanza, which soon becomes tedious. Even the vivacity of tonight’s performers couldn’t disguise that.

Stout opened Part II with a swaggering rendition of ‘Estuans interius’. His top register was tested by Orff’s very high tessitura but he passed the test wit ease. The Roasted Swan solo was delivered by Russell Painter from a vantage point on the organ screen. This is a hideous solo – by design – and Painter hammed it up outrageously; that’s the only way to do it. The Philharmonia’s accompaniment was suitably grotesque.

Adrian Partington then had to rouse David Stout (aka the Abbot of Cluny). As the inebriated Abbot stumbled to his feet he made it obvious that he had imbibed rather too freely of ‘Partingtons’s Potion’. Cue a certain amount of horseplay during ‘Ego sum abbas’; however, the horseplay was in the spirit of things and, importantly, didn’t get in the way of Stout singing the music properly as well as vividly.. ‘In taberna quando sumus’ was taken at quite a lick and I admired the incisiveness of the gentlemen of the Chorus. I know from personal experience what a tongue-twister this number is but the men were accurate throughout. As this den of iniquity was being portrayed the young singers of the Gloucester Cathedral Junior Choir made their way onto the front of the organ screen ready for Part III. In view of the scene of debauchery that was being portrayed below them I hope they were properly chaperoned!

These young singers, delivering everything from memory, sang with brightness and bite – and no little confidence – in ‘Amor volat undique’. In fact all their singing during the performance was really well done; clearly they had been expertly coached by Nia Llewellyn Jones. This concert must have been a great experience for them; I hope they enjoyed it.

Part III also brought the involvement of soprano Ilona Domnich. I thought she was terrific. Her voice was clear and bright.  Furthermore she could bring a touch of sensuousness to her tone as she did for ’In trutina’. This is one of the best numbers in the work and Miss Domnich sang it gorgeously. There was another confident performance from the children in ‘Tempus es iocundum’ which the adult singers – and the orchestra – ensured was a suitably hedonistic experience. The stratospherically high ‘Dulcissime’ was sung appealingly by Ilona Domnich after which ‘Ave formosissima’ was full of ardour and grandeur. Then Adrian Partington brought the wheel of fortune full circle, galvanising choir and orchestra to a suitably ebullient finish.

In the end, I enjoyed Carmina Burana much more than I expected. That’s not because I experienced a Damascene conversion to the work; the enjoyment came from the vitality of the performance itself. My seat for this concert was quite a bit further back than had been the case at other concerts earlier in the week but the sound of the Festival Chorus reached the back of the cathedral clearly and with no little power. It was also obvious that attention to detail was inherent in everything they sang. The playing of the Philharmonia was superb throughout the evening. Adrian Partington controlled proceedings expertly from start to finish.

This was a long evening, lasting for nearly 2 ½ hours, but it was an enjoyable and varied one.

John Quinn

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