United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Elgar: Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano); David Butt Philip (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone); Worcester Cathedral Girl Choristers; Three Choirs Festival Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Worcester Cathedral 25.7.2017. (JQ)
Elgar – The Dream of Gerontius Op.38
Elgar’s visionary setting of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius has become inextricably associated with the Three Choirs Festival. It was first given at Three Choirs in 1902 when, appropriately, the festival was held in the composer’s home city of Worcester. As is related in the excellent new book by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley, The Three Choirs Festival. A History (Boydell Press 2017), there were some initial problems with what were viewed as expressions of Roman Catholic doctrine in Newman’s text. Modifications had to be made at the insistence of the clergy and even then, the work was not performed in full at Gloucester until 1910 though Hereford staged it the year after Worcester. Happily, such issues are long a thing of the past and Gerontius, without any textural amendments, soon became and has remained a staple of the Three Choirs repertoire.
Tonight’s performance was given in the presence of HRH the Prince of Wales, who is President of the Three Choirs Festival. It was therefore something of an Occasion though I’m not sure that the performance lived up to the occasion in every respect.
One way in which the performance definitely rose to the occasion was in respect of the contribution of the chorus. Most of these singers will be more than familiar with Elgar’s masterpiece and it showed, not least in their commitment. I was greatly impressed with the delivery of the Big Moments. The great outburst at ‘Praise to the Holiest’ was strong and confident; the choir really got hold of the Demons’ Chorus, especially the second half (from ‘Dispossessed’ onwards); and their contribution to the great ensemble with the Priest that closes Part I was excellent in every respect. Just as impressive as these big passages, however, was the nuanced singing elsewhere. A couple of examples will suffice. After the initial paean of praise ‘Praise to the Holiest’ the music that follows can seem an anti-climax. That wasn’t the case here, not least because the chorus were most attentive to dynamics which meant that the various choral lines all came across clearly. Earlier, the wonderful build-up to ‘Praise to the Holiest’ benefitted from some wonderfully pure singing by the female voices as the Angelicals. This is a marvellous, highly imaginative episode and the ladies of the Festival Chorus, allied with the Worcester Cathedral Girl Choristers, sang with purity of tone and freshness. Throughout the performance I admired the responsiveness of the choir which reflected no little credit on the Music Directors of the three cathedrals who had trained them. The crucially important semi-chorus was on excellent form.
I think the choir was aided by a good balance between them and the orchestra. Previously at Three Choirs it’s sometimes been the case that, despite the skill of the admirable Philharmonia orchestra, the choir has been a little overpowered by the sheer weight of orchestral tone. I suspect this is due, at least in part, to the tricky acoustics of the three cathedrals. This year, for the first time at Worcester, I believe, we have a new arrangement whereby the choir and orchestra are positioned towards the east end of the cathedral, in front of the quire, rather than at the building’s west end. This seemed to me to work very well. My seat was in the rear quarter of the nave, raised up on the tier, and I had no trouble hearing the choir – or, indeed, the soloists. It took me a little while to adjust my ears to the orchestral sound but I soon found a good balance was in evidence. As ever, the Philharmonia offered distinguished playing.
The 37-year-old tenor, David Butt Philip is not a singer who I can recall hearing before. He sang the role of Gerontius for Sir Mark Elder earlier this year. I missed the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of that performance but my colleague, Michael Cookson, who attended the performance thought well of his singing (review). I must say I had mixed feelings tonight. I wonder if he was nervous at the start – there was a miscued note in his first phrase. I liked the delivery of his first solo; the tone was pleasing and a good feeling for the words was evident. ‘Sanctus fortis’ was initially something of a disappointment: it didn’t seem to me there was much feeling behind the notes, well though the notes themselves were articulated: characterisation seemed lacking. The phrase ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’, however, was poetically delivered and thereafter the remainder of the aria was sung with much more involvement. David Butt Philip impressed me a lot more in Part II where his performance was much more even. He made an immediate and positive impression with his first solo which was light and flexible in delivery and sung with good expression. His contribution to the extended dialogue with the Angel was very satisfying. I admired the way that he – and Martyn Brabbins – invested the small but infinitely significant phrase, ‘I go before my judge’ with a sense of genuine awe. The best singing was reserved for ‘Take me away’. The opening phrase, delivered in a single breath – not all tenors manage that – was a moment of exalted penitence and the remainder of this concluding solo was sung with fine expression.
Singing opposite David Butt Philip was Susan Bickley as The Angel. I’ve heard and admired Miss Bickley often in the past, not least at Three Choirs. Her performance tonight was one to which she brought all her experience but I was left wanting more. At the time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was missing but, reflecting on the performance afterwards I realised that what I was hoping to hear was greater tenderness, such as I’ve heard from several other singers of the past and present in this role. Elgar’s memorable phrases were well sung in vocal terms but I wish Miss Bickley had let go a little more. The interpretation was too cool and contained. Nonetheless, there was much to admire, not least an intelligently-spun narrative at ‘There was a mortal’. Like her Gerontius, Susan Bickley’s finest singing came in her last solo; she gave us a touching account of the Farewell.
The third soloist has least to do but Roderick Williams still made a splendid contribution. He was a fine Priest, singing this solo with authority and dignity. There was, thank goodness, no hint of over-emphatic delivery, such as I’ve heard from one or two other singers in this role. If anything, he was even better as the Angel of the Agony. This, too, is a solo where it’s not easy to strike the right tone. The music needs to be delivered in a commanding fashion, which Williams achieved. However, Elgar (and Newman) demand more: this Angel is not just a dread character; he must display compassion too. It seemed to me that Roderick Williams achieved an ideal balance between presence and compassion. In particular, his delivery of the passage beginning ‘Hasten, Lord, their hour’ – something of a touchstone for me – was outstandingly eloquent.
Martyn Brabbins is a distinguished interpreter of English music and, having experienced his excellent work on disc and also live, both at Three Choirs (review) and in an unforgettable performance of Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress at ENO (review), my expectations were high. I don’t think those expectations were quite met. Brabbins brought out the drama in the score convincingly and, though eschewing a baton, he clearly obtained a vivid response from both chorus and orchestra. Where I was less convinced was in his manipulation of tempo. Quite often his speeds were fairly swift – something to which I don’t object per se; there’s nothing worse than dawdling in Elgar. I had the impression, though, that the dialogue between the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel was a bit too fleet. The start of Part II was very convincing, not least a delicate, transparent account of the Prelude. However, once Susan Bickley began to sing it seemed that the speed was just a little too urgent and this, I suspect, denied both of the singers quite enough space in which to make their expressive points. Here and elsewhere it seemed to me that Brabbins did not make as much as he might have done of the many places in the score where Elgar modifies the tempo, sometimes for just a bar or so, for expressive effect. One may not always want to hear the score performed with the extreme flexibility of tempo that Daniel Barenboim brings to it – that’s something of a “Sunday treat” – but though Brabbins used Elgarian rubato at certain times in the score I wish he had gone further. In short, I didn’t feel there was sufficient poetry in his reading.
In the interests of balance, I should say that performance and artists were very warmly received and that I heard a good number of appreciative comments as the audience made its way out of Worcester Cathedral. Quite possibly, therefore, my reservations were not shared by others who were present but I wasn’t enthralled by Gerontius this evening in the way that I usually am. I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was a performance of Elgar’s great work that could have delivered even more.