The Three Choirs Festival 2018: A Preview


The Three Choirs Festival in 2018

The Three Choirs Festival, which was first held in 1715, is probably the oldest music festival in the world. The Festival is held in turn in one of the three cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. This year the Festival takes place between 28 July and 4 August and, by rotation, it will be hosted by the cathedral and city of Hereford. All the performances mentioned in this preview will take place in Hereford Cathedral unless otherwise stated.

Hereford Cathedral’s Director of Music, Geraint Bowen, will be the Artistic Director of the Festival and he’s devised an enterprising and wide-ranging programme of events.

Speaking at the official launch of the full Festival programme on 20 April, Mr Bowen outlined the principal ideas that have shaped his programming. Since 1918 was the year in which the United Kingdom extended the vote to women, it’s appropriate that Celebrating Women should be a prominent theme. 1918 was also the year in which Sir Hubert Parry died and there’s no better place to celebrate this fine composer and enlightened enabler of other, younger composers, than the Three Choirs Festival, with which he had such a strong association during his lifetime. The centenary of the tragically premature death of Lili Boulanger will be marked and the Festival will also conclude its five-year-long commemoration of the First World War.

Choral music inevitably underpins the Festival each year and 2018 will be no exception. The opening night will pick up the Celebrating Women theme with a very rare performance of the Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth. Dame Ethel herself conducted two movements from the Mass at the 1925 Festival and in 1928 she returned to conduct the entire work but it’s not been heard at Three Choirs since then. Geraint Bowen will be on the rostrum this time (28 July). Though the Smyth piece has been given at Three Choirs before, one of Elgar’s large-scale choral works, King Olaf, has never received a Festival performance. That omission will be rectified this year when Sir Andrew Davis leads a performance. Davis has a fine recording of the work to his credit (review) so his performance is eagerly awaited (30 July)

Sir Andrew also leads the Festival’s principal tribute to Parry: a major concert devoted to his music. The programme includes the Fifth Symphony, the cantata Invocation to Music and one of Parry’s finest choral achievements, Blest Pair of Sirens (2 August). Another Parry masterpiece, the Songs of Farewell, features in an afternoon concert by Nigel Short and Tenebrae. They’ll perform music by several other composers including Elgar, Howells, Vaughan Williams and Schoenberg (30 July). Parry will feature in the closing concert when Geraint Bowen will conduct his fine orchestral Elegy for Brahms and, appropriately, Brahms’ own Ein Deutsches Requiem (4 August).

Geraint Bowen will be supported by his colleagues from Gloucester and Worcester cathedrals. Adrian Partington is in charge of a mouth-watering programme which includes Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 120 (Du fond de l’abime), Walton’s Viola Concerto and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (3 August). Incidentally, among the soloists in the Boulanger will be tenor Magnus Walker, who enjoyed a great personal success when he stood in at minimal notice for an indisposed soloist at a major concert of the 2016 Festival (review). Worcester’s Peter Nardone will conduct Mendelssohn’s Lobegesang (1 August).

Once again, the Philharmonia Orchestra will be in residence and they’ll not only participate in most of the evening choral concerts in the cathedral but will also give a purely orchestral concert. They’ll be working with the young Hong-Kong born conductor, Elim Chan, who has already made quite a name for herself internationally. She’ll lead them in an all-English programme that includes Holst’s The Planets and the premiere of Hannah Kendall’s Baptistry (29 July). The Philharmonia get a well-deserved evening off when Brecon Baroque accompany the Three Cathedral Choirs and a strong team of soloists in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers (31 July). As usual, the cathedral choirs will combine to sing Choral Evensong on most days during the Festival.

On a smaller scale, but no less enticing, tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook will give a morning recital under the title The Solitary Pilgrim. The programme includes music by Clara Schumann, Schubert and Jonathan Dove. The final offering will be Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel of which this partnership has just made a magnificent recording. (Holy Trinity Church. 30 July). In the same venue the Gould Piano trio will be joined by clarinettist Robert Plane for a programme that culminates in Messiaen’s visionary Quatuor pour le Fin du Temps (31 July). The renowned harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani will give a late-night performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations (St Francis Xavier Church, 3 August). The festival has secured the services of another virtuoso: the organist Olivier Latry. He’ll put the cathedral organ through its paces with a recital that includes music by Bach, Franck and Dupré as well as an Improvisation to conclude (31 July).

There are some 50 events during the Festival, taking place both in Hereford itself and in several of the highly attractive towns in the vicinity, so this preview has only scratched the surface. The full programme can be accessed through the Festival website.

Postal and online booking opens to the public on 23 April. From the same date telephone bookings can be made on 01452 768928.

John Quinn

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