The Three Choirs Festival Pays a Worthy and Well-Deserved Tribute to Sir Hubert Parry

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [4] – Parry: Katherine Broderick (soprano), Mark Le Brocq (tenor), David Stout (bass), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 2.8.2018. (JQ)

Parry – Blest pair of Sirens; Symphony No.5; Invocation to Music

The Three Choirs Festival has marked the centenary of the death of Sir Hubert Parry on several occasions during the week. However, this concert, entitled ‘A Parry Centenary Tribute’ was the showcase event and I for one was grateful to Artistic Director Geraint Bowen for choosing a couple of pretty unfamiliar works.

That description does not apply to Blest pair of Sirens, which opened the concert. This very fine piece has become, deservedly, a staple of the choral society repertoire and has been performed at the Three Choirs Festival on a good number of occasions. It’s a magnificent work to hear and even more thrilling to sing. The work was composed in 1887 to a commission from Stanford for a choral work with which the Bach Choir could celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Stanford and the Bach Choir gave the first performance in May 1887 and the work was an immediate and great success. The text is by John Milton and Parry’s inspired setting has always seemed to me to be an ideal marriage of words and music. Tonight, Sir Andrew Davis established good forward momentum right from the start and I was glad of that, because while the music must sound noble and strong too slow a speed runs the risk that the piece will sound stodgy. There was never any danger of that in this performance in which an strong sense of line was evident throughout. The Festival Chorus offered assured, firm-toned singing and I admired the way they achieved clarity in the part writing. I appreciated the warmth with which first the sopranos and then the tenors delivered the wonderful melody at ‘O may we soon again renew that song’. The extended passage that follows soon after (‘To live with him and sing in endless morn of light’) is one of the most memorable in English choral music. The eight-part choral counterpoint is technically superb but Parry’s genius is to make the listener completely unaware of technical matters by building the passage impressively and inexorably to a marvellously fulfilling climax. The Festival Chorus did this passage full justice. The concert was off to a fine start.

Like Blest pair, the Fifth Symphony also written for a celebratory event; in this case, the centenary of the Philharmonic Society in 1912. This was, I believe, its second outing at Three Choirs; a performance took place at the 1989 Gloucester Festival. When the work was published it bore the title Symphonic Fantasy in B minor ‘1912’ It’s cast in four movements, played without a break, to which Parry gave the titles ‘Stress’, ‘Love’, ‘Play’, and ‘Now’. I know it through two very good recordings: the first made by Sir Adrian Boult in 1979 and a second version made in 1991 by Matthias Bamert as part of his invaluable series of Parry recordings for Chandos. Live performances, on the other hand, are like hen’s teeth although, as luck would have it, I heard a very persuasive performance by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Martyn Brabbins just a few days ago at the BBC Proms (review).

It would not surprise me if Sir Andrew Davis had learned both this score and that of Invocation to Music specifically for this concert. if so, we are in his debt because both performances were assured and highly convincing. In the first movement of the symphony, ’Stress’, I welcomed the energy and sense of purpose that he brought to the music. Equally welcome was the degree of light and shade that the Philharmonia brought to the score. In all probability this was their first encounter with the symphony but one would not have known such was the quality and responsiveness of their playing throughout.  This was a super account of the movement, very well shaped by Davis. The second movement, ‘Love’ was no less successful. Here there is a good deal of broad cantabile writing, not least for the strings, and I relished the sheer quality of tone from the orchestra. Just as notable was the fine sense of line. Arguably, the third movement, ‘Play’ was the highlight of this performance. In this scherzo-like movement I loved the delicacy and playful energy with which the strings and woodwind delivered the main material. There was genuine charm in the trio, where the woodwind and horns are often to the fore. At one point in the trio the CCTV screen showed the Philharmonia’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay in close-up, a broad smile on his face: that was great to see. Anyone who says that Parry is boring or lacking in wit would surely have to concede defeat in the face of this music and this performance of it. Much of the finale, ‘Now’ is confident and cheerful in tone Eventually, a return to the motif with which the symphony began heralds a broadly sung melody, richly textured, after which the symphony moves to a very positive, rather grand end.

At the end of this excellent performance I was left wondering why we don’t hear such fine music more often – and the other four Parry symphonies aren’t too shabby, either. Of course, I’m sure that concert promoters (with the honourable exception of the Three Choirs Festival) will fear such works as box office death. But perhaps someone would be brave enough, next time a performance of, say, one of Schumann’s fine symphonies is proposed, to say “let’s give Parry’s Fifth a chance.”  Sadly, I doubt it will happen but tonight’s highly convincing and wonderfully played performance and the warm audience reception demonstrated why it should happen.

After the interval we heard a work which, to the best of my knowledge, was receiving its first Three Choirs performance: Invocation to Music.  This work was commissioned by the Leeds Festival for performance in 1895 to mark the bicentenary of the death of Henry Purcell. The words were written specially by Parry’s life-long friend, the poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930). It’s a substantial piece; a timing of 55 minutes was given in the programme, which is the same as on the 1991 recording by Matthias Bamert, though in the event, tonight’s reading, which didn’t feel rushed to me, played for some 49 minutes. The scoring calls for three soloists, SATB chorus and a fairly substantial orchestra.

To be honest, though the score has some memorable episodes, there are also some passages where the level of inspiration dips, I feel. Perhaps this variability is not unconnected to Robert Graves’ poetry which doesn’t always show him at his best. Doing my homework prior to the concert I was fascinated to read in Jeremy Dibble’s magisterial biography of Parry the composer’s own feelings about the libretto. These were contained in a letter he wrote not long before the first performance of the Invocation. ‘Some of the words are indeed extremely fine. Parts do not satisfy the poet himself. He [Bridges] got bored with it, and the result in those cases were not at all sympathetic to my mind. But I am most thankful for the parts in which he turned out such noble lines and thoughts as the Dirge.’

There was much to enjoy in this performance, not least the contributions of the Festival Chorus. Parry’s choral writing is effective and I should imagine it is enjoyable to sing. The choir seemed right at home with the music – and with the idiom – and their singing was well-focussed, committed and very pleasing to hear. Sections seven and eight, which immediately follow the Dirge for bass solo, really give the choir something to get their teeth into. Here Parry is at his best and the Festival Chorus rose to the moment. In particular the last four lines of text in section eight contain music that recalls the closing pages of Blest pair and the choir made a fine showing. Part of me wishes that Parry had stopped there because those pages of choral/orchestral writing would have made a memorable conclusion to the work. However, after a movement for the three soloists there’s a final chorus in praise of music. This, too, is archetypal Parry. The movement is a joyful paean to Music and the choir showed great commitment to the cause. It’s full-hearted music and the Festival Chorus produced singing of great commitment, bringing the Invocation to a noble conclusion.

The Philharmonia carried through into the performance of this work the tremendous form they had demonstrated in the Fifth Symphony. There’s a good deal of attractive orchestral writing in this score and we heard it to best advantage.

Parry requires three soloists and gives them quite a bit to do. I’m sorry to have to report that the performance of Katherine Broderick was a serious disappointment. She has been building a significant reputation in recent years, in particular as a Wagnerian soprano – I understand the roe of Isolde lies just around the corner – but tonight I fear she didn’t do herself justice. From the pictures on the CCTV relay there could be no doubting her smiling engagement with the music but the singing per se was off the mark, I felt. Words were often indistinct, but the worst aspect was that, particularly above the stave, the notes were often spread to such an extent that, to be frank, I often had difficulty in discerning the true pitch of the notes. Add to that a degree of edge to the tone at times and this was a performance in which the singing was not sufficiently controlled. It gave me no pleasure. I was perplexed by this because only a few days before I had heard Miss Broderick on the BBC Radio 3 programme In Tune in an interview which in part, looked forward to this very concert. During the broadcast she also sang live a few English songs and I enjoyed those performances. This leads me to the suspicion that in Hereford Cathedral she pushed the notes out far more than she needed to do. What a pity.

The two male soloists were much more to my taste. Tenor Mark Le Brocq sang very well. I enjoyed his graceful performance of the lyrical section for solo tenor (‘Thee fair Poetry oft hath sought’). His clear tone and diction were decided assets here and the finesse with which the Philharmonia supported him was equally admirable. A little later, Le Brocq was an ardent yet elegant foil to Miss Broderick in the rapturous love duet (‘Love to love calleth’). David Stout is a singer who I’ve admired every time I’ve heard him – especially his excellent performance as Mr Rochester in the splendid live recording of John Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre (review).  Here once again he was on fine form. The bass soloist has one of the key passages in the whole work, namely the sixth section, ‘Dirge’. The music is deeply felt and Stout put it across very well indeed, communicating excellently with the audience. The voice was very well produced, not least at the bottom of his compass, which was satisfyingly firm. I also admired the nuances he brought to his rendition of this important solo, not least in the matter of quiet dynamics.

Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Invocation with conviction and an evident grasp of the big picture. He drew fine singing and playing from the performers and presented Parry’s score in the best possible light. It will never be a repertoire piece but tonight it was very well served.

I think the last word about Invocation to Music should lie with the late Michael Kennedy, doyen of writers about English music. Reviewing for Gramophone magazine, the 1991 recording by Matthias Bamert, he fairly pointed out that ‘there are some uneven and four-square passages’ but he went on to say that ‘at its finest, it reaches heights of eloquence that cannot have been lost on the leaders of the next generation [of composers] and it is music that ought to be heard in our halls.’

I think that’s a very fair judgement. But maybe there’s a case to be made that tonight’s programme night have worked even better had the order of the works been reversed so that the Invocation occupied the first half with the symphony and then Blest pair after the interval for it was in the first half tonight that we heard the most consistently fine music.

Without doubt the Three Choirs Festival paid a worthy and well-deserved tribute to Sir Hubert Parry this evening and I fancy quite a few people may have found the symphony in particular to be something of a revelation.

John Quinn   

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