United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Dove, Fauré: Lorna Anderson (soprano); Nicholas Mulroy (tenor); Andrew Davies (baritone); Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir; Three Cathedral Choir Choristers; Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Worcester Cathedral 27.7.2017. (JQ)
Jonathan Dove – There Was a Child (2009)
Fauré – Requiem
The Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir was established in 2010. The choir is formed each year, specifically to give a concert in the Festival, and I think I’m right in saying that it’s open to singers aged between 16 and 25 from the three counties that form the Festival’s catchment area. I’ve heard their concerts at the last two Festivals (review, review); I enjoyed those concerts. To the best of my knowledge tonight was the first occasion on which one of the prestigious evening concerts with the Philharmonia has been entrusted to the Youth Choir. One thing is important to say, I think. For various logistical reasons – no doubt including school examination pressures – it’s not possible to assemble the choir until the week of the Festival. As a result, tonight’s concert was the product of just 18 hours of rehearsals over four days and I think it was a prodigious achievement by these young singers that they attained the standards that they did in such a short but concentrated period of rehearsals. Mind you, I’m sure it helped that their rehearsals were directed by Adrian Partington, who is one of the country’s leading choral trainers.
Including the treble choristers from the three cathedral choirs there were some 70 singers involved but, ideally, another 20 singers would have been welcome, especially in the three lower parts. The Philharmonia played with admirable restraint throughout but, inevitably, there were times, mainly in the Dove piece, where the singers were somewhat overwhelmed. Also, words did not come across too well and that was a problem in the Dove where there are a lot of words, many of them unfamiliar. Those comments, however, merely state facts; they do not undermine the overall achievement of the singers this evening.
When I received advance details of the 2017 Festival this was one of the first concerts to go into the diary. Fauré’s exquisite Requiem is a work I’m always keen to hear but the principal attraction was the first opportunity I’ve had to experience a live performance of Jonathan Dove’s There Was a Child. I’d heard the work before because I reviewed the recording of the piece a few years ago and it had impressed me.
Tonight’s concert showed inspired programme planning in several ways by Festival Director, Peter Nardone. On a mundane level, it was shrewd to pair the Jonathan Dove piece, which will have been unfamiliar to many Three Choirs patrons, with Fauré’s much-loved work. More than that, though, Dove’s work, though written to commemorate a young man who died prematurely, is not a mournful affair, though it does have one tragic episode; rather it offers consolation through celebrating the joys of childhood. Fauré’s Requiem nicely complements the Dove, I think, because it is essentially a work of gentle consolation; the fire and brimstone of Verdi are a million miles away. The other inspired touch by Peter Nardone is that There Was a Child is a work that came out of the loss of a much-loved child, as did Herbert Howells Hymnus Paradisi with which Nardone has chosen to close the Festival on Saturday evening.
There Was a Child was commissioned by Rosemary Pickering, widow of the distinguished bass, Richard Van Allan (1935-2008), in memory of their son, Robert, who had been drowned in 1999 at the tragically young age of 19. By coincidence, Richard Van Allan was rehearsing Jonathan Dove’s opera, Flight, at Glyndebourne at the time of his son’s death. Rosemary Pickering came to invite Jonathan Dove to write a work in Robert’s memory because she had previously been impressed by Dove’s theatre music and, in the 1990s, had worked with him on his first concerto commission. This she related in a note in tonight’s programme
Jonathan Dove selected a variety of texts in English to illustrate the life of a child from birth, via the delights – and the rough and tumble – of growing up through to the sorrow – inescapable in this instance – of a young life cut short. His choice of words is very discerning, I think, and this, together with the quality of his music places There Was a Child firmly in that fine tradition of anthology choral works by English composers such as Britten and Vaughan Williams.
The work includes prominent parts for soprano and tenor soloists who represent, respectively, mother and son. An SATB choir and substantial orchestra is required and there’s also a crucial role for a children’s chorus; on this occasion, the cathedral choristers performed that function.
The work, which lasts for about 50 minutes, is in nine sections. The first concerns the child’s birth. Here the orchestral writing is busy while the music for the choir is joyful. All the musicians made this opening section light-footed, dancing and happy. We were off to a very positive start.
Movements two to seven concern various aspects of childhood. I very much enjoyed the third movement which sets ‘A Song About Myself’ by John Keats. This is sung by the children’s choir. The boys did very well here, conveying the cheekiness of Dove’s setting. I thought it was telling that at the end of the movement there were audible chuckles from the audience – and rightly so. It seemed to me, though I didn’t have a score, that there were one or two occasions where the boys were not entirely together but this mattered not; what did matter was the character in their singing. Later on, the boys sang Emily Dickinson’s ‘Over the Fence’ and this too was a success; they and the slender orchestration employed by Dove put across the lightness and innocence of the music very well.
The SATB chorus impressed in the fourth section, ’From all the Jails the Boys and Girls’ another Dickinson setting. Here their singing was energetic and precise; they were clearly galvanised by Adrian Partington’s conducting. They impressed, too, with their various contributions to the last two sections. In the penultimate section, for example, they gave a strongly committed account of the setting of ‘On the Eve of his Execution’. This is a poem by a sixteenth-century Englishman, Chidiock Tichborne who was put to death for his part in a plot against Queen Elizabeth I. Here Dove’s music is very powerful and it was put across with no little intensity by both chorus and orchestra; at times Adrian Partington seemed to be willing the sound out of his choir. The Youth Choir may have been lacking in numbers but they made up for this with the confidence and commitment – and technical excellence – of their singing. Their performance was highly animated and I wasn’t surprised to learn from some choir members to whom I chatted during the interval that they’d really enjoyed learning There Was a Child. That came over in their performance.
I’m afraid that Lorna Anderson, the soprano soloist, was a disappointment. Her voice seemed undernourished and thin of tone, especially in her top register. Her voice didn’t carry very well to where I was sitting in the rear half of the nave and as a result neither words nor music emerged clearly. The soprano part is important; here, I’m sorry to say, it was unconvincing. I had no trouble in hearing tenor Nicholas Mulroy. His voice projected strongly and clearly, even when he was singing quietly. He sang with sensitivity and plenty of expression. Quite a bit of the tenor part is ecstatic in nature and Mulroy was ideally suited to this. He made a particularly impressive job of ‘High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)’ by John Gillespie Magee, which comes near the start of the penultimate section. The ninth and last section is a setting of ‘There Was a Child went Forth’ by Walt Whitman. This begins with the solo tenor and once again I admired Mulroy’s way with the words and music. This solo leads into a setting of the remainder of the poem for full forces. Though I haven’t seen a score this ensemble sounds to me to be an often-complex piece of writing. However, under Adrian Partington’s clear direction and with alertness on the part of all the performers this final section was negotiated not only safely but also convincingly.
I’ve listened to the recording of There Was a Child several times now, both when I reviewed the CD a few years ago and, more recently, in preparation for this concert. It had already impressed me strongly and tonight’s animated and accomplished performance confirmed my view that this is a piece that is as admirable as it is moving. The level of musical invention is high and Jonathan Dove’s musical language is attractive and accessible. The music seems very well written for voices while the orchestration is colourful and consistently interesting. I was delighted that this fine performance was enthusiastically received. I hope that the composer, who was present, was pleased.
After the interval, we heard much more familiar fare in the shape of Fauré’s Requiem. It wasn’t made clear in the programme – as it should have been – which edition was being used but given that a full complement of violins and horns was onstage it must have been the 1900 full orchestral version. The Philharmonia played with great sensitivity throughout and only on a couple of brief occasions was the balance between them and the choir tilted in favour of the orchestra. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but wonder if, in view of the choral forces involved, there might not have been a case for using John Rutter’s edition of the 1893 version of the work with its lighter orchestration.
Even the fully scored version of the Requiem uses a smaller orchestra than is required for the Jonathan Dove work and as a result the choir was now much better heard. I thought the choir did extremely well. One passage that caught my ear was the opening of the Offertoire. Here the altos and tenors negotiated the highly exposed and tricky writing very well and I liked the fresh quality of their sound. The reprise of this material, this time for full choir, was well done and the conclusion of the movement, with the dynamics scrupulously observed, was disarmingly lovely. In the ‘Libera me’ the choir didn’t really have sufficient punch in the ‘Dies irae’ – and they were competing against four Philharmonia horns in full cry. However, when they sang the main melody in unison they did it very well, again with great care for the dynamics. In the ‘Sanctus’ both choir and orchestra achieved grandeur at the ‘Hosanna’. The most memorable part of the performance – indeed, arguably the most memorable moments of the whole evening – came in the ‘In Paradisum’. The sopranos and trebles sang their ethereal line with great purity of tone and exemplary control; this beautiful movement was movingly done.
Lorna Anderson returned to sing the ‘Pie Jesu’. I sensed she was more at ease with this music and with the lighter accompaniment but I still didn’t find her delivery of this celebrated solo particularly memorable. Andrew Davies was firm of tone and admirably clear in the two baritone solos. I liked his well-focused voice. Adrian Partington conducted with great sensitivity, giving his singers every encouragement and drawing a fine performance from them.
This was a most enjoyable concert. These young singers should feel very proud of their achievement. I’m sure this concert – and the preparation for it – was a great experience for them.