United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Howells: Ruth Holton (soprano); Ed Lyon (tenor); Robert Evans (bass); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra / Peter Nardone (conductor). Worcester Cathedral 29.7.2017. (JQ)
An English Farewell
Vaughan Williams – Serenade to Music
Finzi – Dies Natalis
Howells – Hymnus Paradisi
Peter Nardone opted to bring the 2017 Three Choirs Festival to an end with a reflective programme rather than with one that was more overtly celebratory. However, if the Festival did not end with a bang it most certainly didn’t end with a whimper. The Three Choirs Festival regularly offers a rich and diverse programme but English music remains at its heart and long may that continue. Tonight, we were presented with a wonderful programme of music by English Romantics.
Vaughan Williams originally conceived his Serenade to Music for sixteen solo voices, allocating each singer a short solo; there are also some short sections in which all sixteen sing together. Later he arranged the work for chorus alone. It’s been recorded at least once in that form, by Vernon Handley, but that’s not quite what we heard tonight. Instead Peter Nardone gave us a hybrid version in which the chorus only sang the passages for all voices with the solo parts being sung by the three soloists – Ruth Holton sang not only the soprano solos but also those for alto and did well notwithstanding that some of the alto passages were originally conceived for genuine contraltos and lie very low. I think the decision to present the work in this way was a very sensible one: some of the solos, though short, are pretty demanding and don’t readily lend themselves to massed voices. We heard a lovely, glowing performance. The singing, whether solo or choral, was excellent and the Philharmonia played with great finesse; in the orchestral prelude, they set the ambience beautifully and the performance never looked back. It could be argued that the work is for seventeen soloists since there’s a crucial role for a solo violin at the start and again to close the work. Sarah Oates, who has led the orchestra expertly throughout the week, played these solos with radiant sweetness. Serenade to Music is truly a unique work – unique in its beauty and as a magical response to Shakespeare’s words. Tonight’s performance did it justice.
Finzi’s Dies Natalis is quintessential Three Choirs music. For one thing, as Richard Bratby pointed out in his very useful programme notes, the work sets poems by Thomas Traherne (c1636-1674), who was born in Hereford. Furthermore, this solo cantata for high voice and strings was scheduled to receive its premiere at the 1939 Hereford Three Choirs Festival. Unfortunately, the festival, which in those days was held in early September, was cancelled on the outbreak of World War II and Dies Natalis was instead unveiled in London in 1940. Ed Lyon sang it tonight and he gave an impressive performance. So, too, did the Philharmonia strings under the sympathetic direction of Peter Nardone. Conductor and players gave a fine, supple account of the ‘Intrada’ in which several of the cantata’s themes are introduced. Mr Nardone imparted a pleasing flow to the music and in this movement the ambience of what was to follow was well established. In ‘Rhapsody’ Ed Lyon showed that he has a strong yet flexible voice. Throughout the work Finzi requires a wide dynamic range from his singer and also wrote a vocal line with a very wide compass. Lyon was well equipped to meet all these demands. Furthermore, in ‘Rhapsody’, as elsewhere, he showed an admirable sensitivity to the words. The closing line (‘Everything was at rest, free and immortal’) is set to music of touching simplicity which Lyon and Nardone conveyed with great empathy.
I admired the athleticism of the strings at the start of ‘The Rapture’. In this movement, the words carried less easily to the rear of the nave but I suspect that’s due to the nature of Finzi’s writing. That said, I think in this movement Peter Nardone might have encouraged the orchestra just to ease off the volume a fraction to give his singer a better chance. The tender rapture of ‘Wonder’ came over very well in this performance. Then, in a fine reading of the closing movement, ‘The Salutation’, the gentle rapture of the start and end of the piece was especially impressive. Dies Natalis contains lovely music from start to finish. I thought Peter Nardone conducted it very well while Ed Lyon was very fine; he evidenced great empathy for the work, bringing out the poetry in Finzi’s writing. He was particularly impressive when singing gently.
Hymnus Paradisi will forever be associated with the Three Choirs Festival. Composed as an act of catharsis after the tragic death of Howells’ young son, Michael in 1935, the work, though completed in 1938, was hidden from public view by the composer who deemed it too personal, too confessional a work. Happily, he eventually showed it to Herbert Sumsion, the Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, who enlisted the help of Finzi and Vaughan Williams to persuade Howells that Hymnus Paradisi was a work that cried out for public performance. It was premiered at the Gloucester Three Choirs in 1950. I first became acquainted with the piece in the mid-1970s through the classic David Willcocks recording. It took me several attempts before I ‘got’ it but, thank goodness, I persevered. I’ve long regarded this work of blazing originality and profound emotion as one of the great masterpieces of the English choral repertoire alongside which I’d probably only rank War Requiem, Gerontius and Belshazzar’s Feast.That’s a big claim to make but I think the inspired quality of Howells’ music and the truly moving and eloquent way in which he set a selection of memorable texts justifies the claim.
Tonight’s performance was a fine one. The orchestral prelude was distinguished – the Philharmonia would be on top, rich-hued form throughout. Though I’ve never had the opportunity to sing it I know from listening to the work and following it in the score that the choral parts, which frequently sub-divide, are far from easy. From their first entry, it was obvious that the Festival Chorus were on their collective mettle That initial passage was sung warmly and with feeling. Thereafter the choir’s singing was committed and well-focussed. They did very well in the wonderful setting of ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ and, in alliance with the orchestra, responded to Peter Nardone’s demands for an impassioned climax in ‘Sanctus – I will lift up my eyes’. I was delighted by the choir’s sensitivity in ‘I heard a voice from heaven’. The mounting fervour with which they sang in ‘Holy is the true light’ conveyed the ecstasy in Howells’ writing extremely well. This performance was an appropriate way for the Festival Chorus to sign off at the end of their demanding but successful week.
In truth, I don’t think Ruth Holton’s voice is well suited to Hymnus Paradisi. The solo soprano part ideally requires a voice with greater amplitude. The soprano is often required to soar ecstatically above a luxuriant and dense choral and orchestral background. Miss Holton couldn’t really impose herself in these passages. However, there was no doubting her commitment and in the gentler passages I admired her sensitivity. One such example came at ‘But thy loving kindness and mercy’ in ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. Ed Lyon has a bigger voice and he was well equipped for Howells’ many challenges. He was able to cut through the often-dense textures very well. However, what will live longest in my memory was the finesse and feeling with which he delivered the episodes of quiet rapture. He matched Miss Holton’s tenderness at the start of ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. Especially memorable was his plangent, expressive singing in ‘I heard a voice from Heaven’, particularly at the start of the movement. I thought he was just right for Hymnus Paradisi, his performance setting the seal on what had been a distinguished contribution to the entire programme. Peter Nardone conducted Howells’ complex score most effectively. He ensured that the many sensitive passages were sympathetically realised and when Howells’ music takes wing in episodes of blazing intensity Mr Nardone was ready and able to inspire his forces.
I’ve only been able to attend a handful of events in this richly varied Festival programme but I’ve been greatly impressed by what I’ve heard. The Philharmonia has been on superb form. I’m sure it’s not cheap to secure the services of a world-class London orchestra for a whole week but yet again the artistic results have more than justified the investment. I hope this now well-established partnership between orchestra and Festival will endure. Apart from anything else, I’m sure the players must welcome the opportunity to play less familiar repertoire in congenial surroundings. The Festival Chorus has been on fine form. Its members always put in a tremendous amount of preparatory work over the months preceding the annual Festival and their commitment has well and truly paid off once again. The quality of the choral singing I’ve heard – including that from the Youth Choir – is a tribute not only to the dedication and skills of the singers but also to the continuing insistence on the highest possible standards by their Musical Directors, Geraint Bowen, Peter Nardone and Adrian Partington. Finally, I have the distinct impression that the new (to Worcester) arrangement whereby the performers are in front of the quire has produced excellent results: I hope it will be continued.
And so, the 2017 Three Choirs Festival comes to an end. Next year the host city and cathedral will be Hereford. Geraint Bowen has announced the headline details of the 2018 Festival and very enticing it looks. The centenary of Parry’s death will be celebrated in some style, I’m delighted to see. Tenebrae will include the masterly Songs of Farewell in a concert and there’ll also be an all-Parry programme including the Fifth Symphony and the seriously neglected Invocation to Music. That concert will be conducted by Sir Andrew Davis who will also direct the first Festival performance of Elgar’s substantial cantata, King Olaf (1896). As well as Parry, the French composer Lili Boulanger died in 1918 and her Psaume 130 will be featured in a fantastic programme of music which also has in it works by Ravel, Stravinsky and Walton. Throw into the mix also Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, the Brahms Requiem and a rare chance to hear Dame Ethel Smyth’s Mass in D and you have the prospect of a splendid week of music. The 2018 Festival will run from 28 July to 4 August. More details at the Three Choirs Festival website.