The Parry Centenary Fittingly Celebrated in Gloucester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Parry and his Pupils: A Centenary FestivalEleanor Dennis (soprano), Gloucester Choral Society, members of the Oxford Bach Choir, Choristers of Gloucester Cathedral Jonathan Hope (organ), Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral 5.5.2018; and Derek Harris (piano), Saint Cecilia Singers/Jonathan Hope (conductor), Gloucester Cathedral 6.5.2018. (JQ)

Parry I Was GladOde on the NativityJerusalem
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
HolstThe Hymn of Jesus
Ireland Greater Love Hath No Man

Holst Choral hymns from the Rig Veda, Set 1
Bridge – Autumn; Music when Soft Voices Die
Parry –  Songs of Farewell

Over the May Bank Holiday weekend, the city of Gloucester resounded to the music of Sir Hubert Parry and several other British composers as Gloucester Choral Society mounted an ambitious four-day festival to mark the centenary of Parry’s death. It was entirely appropriate for this festival to happen in Gloucester because Sir Hubert had strong links to the city. His father, Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888) had bought Highnam Court, a gracious mansion a couple of miles outside the city, in 1837. Hubert grew up there and in adult life he visited the house frequently, especially after he inherited it in 1896, even though it wasn’t his principal residence.

During the weekend a lot of Parry’s music was heard but it was a very sensible decision to make the theme of the festival ‘Parry and his Pupils’. For one thing, this allowed the programmes to be constructed with variety as well as logic. More significantly, it shone a light on one of Parry’s two great legacies. His first legacy, of course, was his own music. I admire his compositions very much and I’m sorry that they’re not performed as often as they deserve for his output contained a great deal of high quality music. But his second legacy was, in my view, even more important: his role as a Great Enabler of young musicians of his day, particularly through his teaching work at the Royal College of Music from 1883. I’m sure Parry was often thoughtful about, and sometimes perplexed by, what must have seemed to him the ambitious and novel music that some of them produced, but he never ceased to be encouraging and to give other musicians, whether pupils or not, such practical help as he could. Since he had invested so much of his life’s work in nurturing young composers it is scarcely surprising that he felt so deeply the loss of many of them during the First World War. A great admirer of German culture, he was greatly saddened when Britain and Germany went to war: how poignant that he died in October 1918, just a month before the conflict came to an end.

The centrepiece of the weekend was the Saturday evening concert in Gloucester Cathedral for which Gloucester Choral Society (GCS) were joined by some of the members of the Oxford Bach Choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra. I can’t provide a review of the concert in the conventional sense because I took part as a temporary member of GCS. However, I think I can objectively comment on one or two things. One of these is the superb playing of the Philharmonia. Thanks, in particular, to their now well-established partnership with the Three Choirs Festival, they are frequent and welcome visitors to this part of England. Outside of their Three Choirs link, they have additionally enjoyed several very successful collaborations with GCS. Saturday’s programme was a challenging one, especially in the cathedral’s generously reverberant acoustic. The Philharmonia played marvellously throughout the evening but there was one portion of the concert when I could sit back, relax and simply enjoy listening to them. At the 2016 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, the Philharmonia gave a memorable performance of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia (review). What made that performance especially remarkable was that no conductor was involved; instead, their leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Vistonay directed the performance from the leader’s desk, a singular achievement. On this occasion, though, Adrian Partington was on the podium and under his expert, empathetic guidance, the Philharmonia’s strings gave a very fine and sensitive account of the piece. How wonderful it is to hear this masterpiece played in the very building where it was unveiled at the Three Choirs Festival of 1910.

I think I can legitimately comment on two more aspects of the concert. Parry’s Ode on the Nativity includes an important part for solo soprano. Often the choir is singing at the same time as the soloist but there are some passages where the soprano comes into her own, including the lovely lyrical solo “Sinners be glad and penance do”. These opportunities were sufficient for me to appreciate the excellent singing of Eleanor Dennis. Her tone was lustrous and she sang with great poise. I look forward to hearing her reprise the role in a few days’ time. The Hymn of Jesus includes a crucial and extensive role for a three-part soprano and alto semi-chorus. The semi-chorus music is very tricky and it’s an essential part of the texture. All credit to the boy and girl choristers of Gloucester Cathedral who sang this music with assurance and accuracy. They were positioned on the choir screen, high above the platform and looking down the cathedral’s packed nave. This was probably the biggest musical occasion so far in the lives of many of these young singers but they seemed completely undaunted by the occasion or by the demands of the music. Bravo!

The concert programme contained some wonderful music. Parry’s I Was Glad (sung from memory) was a majestic opener to the proceedings. Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man is a familiar church anthem but it’s much rarer – and very interesting – to encounter it in the composer’s own orchestration: I’ve never heard this version performed live prior to this concert, though I’ve heard it on disc. The Hymn of Jesus is an astonishing work. It was composed in 1917, only five years after Parry penned Ode on the Nativity.  I’ve always been thrilled by the daring of Holst’s writing in this piece but working on it in intensive rehearsals for several weeks brought home to me just how startlingly original is much of the writing, not least in terms of the harmonies and rhythms. When Elgar wrote The Dream of Gerontius in 1900 there had never been any like it before in English choral music. Fast forward seventeen years and I think the same statement could be made about Holst’s visionary masterpiece. Parry’s Ode on the Nativity is a very fine piece. The music is at various times tender, majestic or exultant in tone. Written for the 1912 Three Choirs Festival (in Hereford that year), it is most attractively laid out for chorus and orchestra with, as previously mentioned, an important solo soprano role. It plays for just under half an hour and I’m at a loss to understand why it’s not more frequently heard, not least because it is most rewarding to sing. Perhaps a new recording in Parry’s centenary year would help its cause. The only recording the work has ever received – a fine one conducted by Sir David Willcocks (review) – is now nearly forty years old. To close the concert, Jerusalem was sung by everyone: what an uplifting tune Parry composed for Blake’s words! This programme was meat and drink to Adrian Partington, who galvanised his forces throughout the evening.

The same forces will reassemble at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 10 May to perform again much of Saturday’s programme. The ‘Tallis’ Fantasia will be performed, as will all three Parry pieces – when was the last time London heard the Ode on the Nativity, I wonder? The programme will be further enriched by the Elgar Cello Concerto with Natalie Clein as soloist.

The musical fare was on a smaller scale on the following day. The Cathedral Choir served up generous helpings of Parry’s music at Eucharist and Evensong – and Vaughan Williams’ sublime Mass in G minor was sung at Eucharist. As the day drew to a close I attended a short concert by the Saint Cecilia Singers. This is an excellent chamber choir which comprises many expert local singers. The choir was founded in 1949 by Donald Hunt when he was Assistant Organist at Gloucester Cathedral and by tradition his successors in that post have continued to conduct the choir. Since 2014 Jonathan Hope, the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music has led the choir. For today’s concert 33 singers (10/9/6/8) were listed in the programme. The performance took place in the quire of the cathedral with the singers placed on the altar steps. This was an ideal location because the music benefitted from the natural resonance of the building yet the quire was a sufficiently intimate venue that there was no lack of clarity.

First, we heard music by two Parry pupils. The first of Holst’s four sets of hymns from the Sanskrit Rig Veda was the only accompanied music on the programme: the piano part was in the capable hands of Derek Harris. It’s a long time since I’ve heard these particular pieces, which date from 1908-10. In ‘Battle Hymn’ Jonathan Hope drove the martial rhythms along excitingly and I admired the choir’s incisiveness. ‘Hymn to the Unknown God’ is also a march, but a much slower one. The music’s air of mystery was well conveyed and the choir’s dynamic control was admirable as they built up to and then retreated from the big central climax. ‘Funeral Hymn’ is the longest and most complex of the set. I thought this was very well done. The two part-songs by Frank Bridge, both Shelley settings, were new to me but I learned from the programme notes by David Thompson – the excellent annotator for all the music performed this weekend – that they were composed in 1903. Autumn contained some searching harmonies but even more impressive at a first hearing was Music when Soft Voices Die. Here Bridge set Shelley’s words to very beautiful music which matched the mood of the words very acutely. Splendidly performed by the Saint Cecilia Singers, this part-song was something of a discovery for me.

I mean no disrespect to Holst and Bridge, but it was Parry’s Songs of Farewell that had chiefly drawn me to this concert. For all the highly accomplished part-songs by other composers I’m inclined to wonder if there is a finer set of British part-songs than these autumnal masterpieces. Parry chose his texts with great discernment and then enriched the words with music of great feeling and technical accomplishment. Opening with a four-part setting, the number of parts and, therefore, the textural complexity gradually increase until the last song, which is scored for two four-part choirs.

The best-known of the set is ‘My soul, there is a country’. Here I admired the discipline of the singing. The music is full of short rests, every one of which is there for a reason, and all of these made their mark. I liked too the urgency brought to the closing pages, beginning at “Leave then thy foolish ranges”. The performance of ‘I know my soul hath power’ was notable for the dynamic range achieved and I admired the clarity with which the flowing part-writing was delivered in ‘Never weather-beaten sail’. The fourth song, ‘There is an old belief’ was sung at Parry’s funeral, and no wonder. Both words and music are suffused with melancholy. Parry’s response to the last two lines, beginning “Eternal be the sleep…” is especially moving and this performance did the music full justice. ‘At the round earth’s imagined corners’ features arguably the most complex part-writing in the set. It seemed to me that the Saint Cecilia Singers mastered this admirably. The whole set leads up to ‘Lord, let me know mine end’. This setting of words from Psalm 39 is a profound meditation on mortality. Poignantly, it was the only one of the six that Parry never heard in his lifetime. Parry’s music is often compared to that of Brahms and as I listened to this piece today I felt there was a strong affinity with the German master’s late motets. Jonathan Hope led a fine, controlled performance of this eloquent music and the choir brought out the intense melancholy of the last few pages of this wonderful setting. I was very glad indeed that at the end a lengthy silence was kept before well-deserved applause. Jonathan Hope had clearly prepared this programme very well indeed: it was a fine concert.

Bank Holiday Monday, another day of glorious sunshine, was designated Highnam Day. All the events were centred on the former Parry home of Highnam Court and the nearby Holy Innocents Church in which Parry frequently worshipped and which is still decorated by the impressive murals painted by his father, Thomas Gambier Parry. Events included a talk by the leading Parry expert, Jeremy Dibble and a chamber recital of music by Parry, Vaughan Williams and Howells. Appropriately, this was given by student musicians from the Royal College of Music. I attended the final event: Choral Evensong in Holy Innocents Church which was very well sung by some members of Gloucester Choral Society conducted by Nia Llewelyn-Jones with Jonathan Hope playing the organ. The service included music by Vaughan Williams as well as Parry’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in D (1881). The Preces and Responses were an intriguing and effective set composed by Jeremy Dibble in which each response is based on a different theme by Parry. Fittingly, the last music to be heard in the festival was by Parry himself as Evensong concluded with Jonathan Hope’s stirring account of the short but majestic Chorale Prelude on Hanover

So, over this weekend Sir Hubert Parry was justly feted in Gloucester, not just as a composer but also as a figure of great significance in British music life. This was a very worthy tribute to him by Gloucester Choral Society.

John Quinn

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