United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Strauss, Rasch, Janáček: Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano); Natalya Romaniw (soprano); Claudia Huckle (contralto); Daniel Norman (tenor); Ashley Riches (bass); Christopher Alsop (organ); Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra / Frank Beermann (conductor). Worcester Cathedral 26.7.2017. (JQ)
R. Strauss – Metamorphosen
Torsten Rasch – A Welsh Night (premiere of orchestral version)
Janáček – Glagolitic Mass
The Three Choirs Festival has given a good deal of prominence to the music of Torsten Rasch in recent years. The 2013 Gloucester Festival presented the premiere of a set of songs, commissioned by Three Choirs and performed by Roderick Williams (review). This served as the aperitif, if you will, to the unveiling at Worcester in 2014 of a much more substantial piece, the choral/orchestral work, A Foreign Field, also a commission. That was a co-commission by the Festival and the Städitsche Theater Chemnitz, Erich Schellhorn-Stiftung. I’m afraid I had reservations about that piece (review) though to judge by a number of laudatory press comments reproduced in the newly-published book, The Three Choirs Festival. A History by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley mine may have been a minority view. A further Rasch piece was premiered at the 2015 Festival in Hereford by Dame Sarah Connolly. This was the song cycle, A Welsh Night. This, another Three Choirs commission, impressed me rather more (review). In preparation for tonight’s performance I had been looking forward to hearing Sarah Connolly sing the cycle as part of a Radio 3 lunchtime concert from Wigmore Hall but she was compelled to withdraw at short notice and Kitty Whately, who replaced her, understandably substituted her own programme. Sarah Connolly was due to perform the songs again tonight, giving the world premiere of the orchestral version but, sadly, she was indisposed and Susan Bickley gallantly stepped in at a few days’ notice.
One reason that I was keen to attend this concert was the presence on the rostrum of the German conductor, Frank Beermann. He came to Worcester, for what may possibly have been his UK debut, with a strong pedigree. Notably, he was Generalmusikdirector of Chemnitz Opera and chief conductor of the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie between 2007 and 2016. He has quite an extensive discography on the CPO label, including many unfamiliar works. I’d also had an opportunity to experience Mr Beermann’s work at first hand in 2015 when I took part, as a guest singer with the Three Choirs Festival Chorus, in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius which he conducted in the German city of Hamm. I was impressed not just by his professionalism but also by his evident empathy with Elgar’s music. Beermann is no stranger to the music of Torsten Rasch. He has conducted quite a few of the composer’s pieces and he was scheduled to conduct the German premiere of A Foreign Field in Chemnitz in 2015 but was indisposed and unable to lead the performance.
Beermann opened proceedings tonight with Metamorphosen. The performance began enticingly with mellow lower strings and I admired the patient way in which Beermann allowed the music to unfold. When the pace quickened after a few minutes he imparted a supple flow to the music, obtaining fine playing from his string group. The climax, when it came, was expansive and then good tension was maintained as the music became more subdued in tone while Strauss revisits and reviews the opening material. When the quotation from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony was voiced in the lower extremes of the band at the close of the piece one had the sense that this was where the music had been heading all along. For me, though I am a Strauss admirer, this piece is just a bit too extended; the editing of about five minutes would have been beneficial. Nonetheless, it is a work of considerable stature within the string orchestra repertoire and this eloquent performance did it justice. Though only 23 string instruments are involved I found that the sound carried easily – my seat was about two-thirds of the way back down the nave. My only reservation was to wonder if in this particular acoustic it would have been beneficial to bring out the bass lines a bit more.
I welcomed the chance to hear the Strauss and it proved to be a good preparation for the Rasch piece that was to follow. However, the programming was not altogether practical in that a considerable amount of platform reorganisation was called for to accommodate the full orchestra required for the Rasch. Despite the best efforts of the platform staff there was a hiatus of at least 10 minutes, which was less than ideal.
A Welsh Night is a set of six songs to words by the Welsh poet, Alun Lewis (1915-1944). To be honest, I couldn’t remember the songs after a single hearing two years ago so tonight’s performance came to me as new music – in any case, even if I had remembered the music it was now clothed in orchestral dress. I don’t know what the scoring is – I haven’t been able to find that on the internet – and I couldn’t see the orchestra in sufficient detail from my seat. However, based on what I heard and on what I saw via the very good CCTV pictures Rasch uses quite a substantial orchestra. One of my chief criticisms of A Foreign Field was that it was seriously over-scored and I feared the same would be true tonight. However, I was delighted to find that Rasch uses his orchestra with greater restraint this time. Thus, in the first song the orchestration was generally delicate while Miss Bickley was singing; it became heavier in brief episodes when the singer is silent. The music is quite intense, even when – especially when – it’s subdued and the vocal line is often plaintive. I was impressed by this song and the atmospheric scoring.
In the short second song, however, the scoring was rather heavier and here I found it more difficult to hear Susan Bickley. The slow fourth song sets lines from a poem entitled Beloved Beware. I can’t remember how the music came across in its piano version but here the orchestration had what seemed to me to be a pronounced nocturnal hue. The lower and upper registers of the orchestra were exploited effectively. I recall that the last song, Monologue, was the one which impressed me the most when Sarah Connolly sang it and so it was tonight. By chance my guest this evening had also been my guest at that Sarah Connolly recital and on both occasions she felt, as I do, that the last song is, by some distance, the best of the set. It’s a beautiful and deeply felt song and I thought the orchestral scoring was exquisite.
I would like to hear these songs again before making a final judgement on them. There’s a good deal to admire in them. However, I remain to be convinced by Torsten Rasch’s music. In particular I don’t find his angular vocal lines appealing: he has a concept of melody that I don’t share. However, I thought the orchestration of A Welsh Night was effective at a first hearing. Rasch certainly benefitted from expert advocacy tonight. It was a considerable accomplishment by Susan Bickley to learn these difficult songs at short notice. It was an even greater achievement to put them across with conviction and artistry as she did this evening. Bravo! I was also impressed by the way Frank Beermann conducted. From what I heard – and from what I saw on the CCTV – he seemed to control the orchestral dynamics very carefully indeed and to be a most attentive accompanist. The subtle passages were very well done by the Philharmonia and on the occasions when the singer was rather overwhelmed by the orchestra that, I think, was down to the scoring. I couldn’t help but reflect at the end of the performance that had Mr Beermann directed the first performance of A Foreign Field I might have formed a more favourable impression. The composer was present and was warmly received.
I often think of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass as the choral repertoire’s equivalent of Le Sacre du Printemps. Like Stravinsky’s great ballet the Glagolitic Mass contains passages that are physically exciting in the extreme. It also contains episodes that require refinement and no little finesse on the part of the performers. A performance of this challenging, thrilling work is to be keenly anticipated.
The platform arrangement was somewhat unusual tonight. At every previous performance of Glagolitic Mass that I’ve attended the four soloists have occupied the conventional positions at the front of the platform on either side of the rostrum. Tonight, they were placed behind the orchestra and in front of the choir. I can only presume this was the conductor’s choice rather than being dictated by space on the platform because for the previous nights’ performance of The Dream of Gerontius which uses similarly large forces the soloists were placed at the front of the platform. I’m rather doubtful that this arrangement was altogether a good idea. Janáček’s solo parts are already demanding enough and require no little effort on the part of each singer. If in addition they have to project over a large orchestra, sometimes playing at full tilt, the task becomes even harder.
That said, I had no trouble at all in hearing the Welsh soprano, Natalya Romaniw. Her voice had the necessary edge for this part and she projected the music strongly and ardently. She was particularly impressive in the Gloria where the soprano carries much of the musical argument in the first half of the movement. The other leading singer is the tenor. Daniel Norman struggled at times to be heard properly – a forward position on the platform would have helped him, I’m sure. However, at the key point in the Credo where the tenor thrillingly proclaims the Catholic and Apostolic Church Norman’s voice rang out with clarion conviction. The other two soloists have much less to do. Ashley Riches is a bass who has impressed me every time I’ve heard him and he was reliable and completely secure in his solo passages. The little that Janáček allowed us to hear of Claudia Huckle’s rich, warm voice made me regret that the composer had been so parsimonious in his writing for the contralto in this work.
Hats off to the Three Choirs Festival Chorus! Janáček doesn’t make it easy for an Anglophone choir: not only do they have to master the idiosyncrasies of his harmonies and the very tricky rhythms, which must be articulated very precisely, but also, they have to sing in a challenging language. Tonight, the chorus passed Janáček’s tests of choral technique with flying colours. The rhythms were confidently and acutely articulated and the singing was often genuinely exciting. Just as importantly, the choir were alive to the passages where more refined singing is needed: their lyrical warmth in the Agnus Dei was a case in point. Above all, this was a performance of great commitment; the choir didn’t just negotiate the difficult music; they made us feel that they were excited by it. The Philharmonia played the vibrant, colourful orchestral score marvellously and with great rhythmic acuity. Often Janáček lets the orchestra off the leash but never did the orchestra overwhelm three singers.
Special mention must be made of Christopher Alsop, Worcester Cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music. The organ part in Glagolitic Mass is crucial, especially in the two solo sections. Alsop’s playing in the first, relatively short solo midway through the Credo was terrifically agile, However, he really came into his own in the penultimate movement which is an exuberant, virtuoso organ showpiece. Thanks to the CCTV relay we were able to watch Christopher Alsop as he gave the cathedral’s Tickell organ a thorough workout. His feet and hands were dancing over the pedal board and manuals respectively as he played the penultimate movement yet he appeared completely composed. Composed he may have been, but his performance was absolutely thrilling. Then Beermann and the orchestra brought the Mass to a jubilant conclusion with the short Intrada movement.
I thought Frank Beermann conducted the work very well indeed. I’ve heard it many times and this was as convincing a performance as I’ve heard. So much of the music depends on rhythmic drive and Beermann ensured that all the necessary energy and vitality was there. He was equally successful in the quieter passages, some of which are very beautiful, some of them more tense. I could see him frequently through the television link and his direction was crystal clear: I doubt any of the performers could have been in any doubt about what Beermann wanted during the performance. This programme represented an impressive and auspicious Three Choirs debut for the German conductor. I hope he’ll be asked back again and next time it would be good to hear him conduct Elgar.