Adrian Partington Introduces the 2019 Three Choirs Festival in Conversation with John Quinn

2019 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester 

In remarks accompanying the pathfinder prospectus for the 2019 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester the Artistic Director, Adrian Partington, commented: ‘Themes and anniversaries aren’t necessarily the best influences on successful programmes.’ I wouldn’t disagree, but even so, it’s surely appropriate that the highly attractive 2019 Festival programme, which has now been launched in full, reflects one or two notable anniversaries. This year the Festival will run from 26 July to 3 August. To find out more about what’s in store and get a taste for some of the highlights I went to see Adrian Partington recently.

Before touching on anniversaries and other matters, though, I asked him about a forthcoming revival which has recently become rather poignant. In 2010, one of the peaks of Adrian’s first Festival as Artistic Director was the first performance of a major work for soloists, choruses and orchestra, An English Requiem by John Joubert which had been commissioned for the Festival. I was greatly impressed by the piece on a first hearing (review) and delighted when I learned there would be a revival in 2019. It had been hoped that John Joubert would be able to attend the performance but his unexpected death at the beginning of January put an end to those hopes. I asked Adrian why he was so keen to revive the work.

He explained that he was really struck by the piece when he led the first performance in 2010. Not all Three Choirs commissions down the years have been successful, he admits, but this, he thought, was one that would do well. He believes it is ‘a strong work’ and he finds it slightly disappointing that, so far as he knows, An English Requiem has not achieved a second performance; but I suspect one reason for this is that people simply don’t know about it. The forthcoming Three Choirs performance will be recorded by the BBC for future broadcast on Radio 3 and it is to be hoped this will bring the work to a wider audience. Adrian thinks it ought to be of interest to provincial choral societies and even to some of those in London ‘because, as with all Joubert, the style is direct and yet approachable; it is challenging without being abstruse.’ He agreed with me that the work evidences, yet again, Joubert’s effectiveness as a melodist: the work is ‘stuffed full of good tunes’. Even more than the melodies, though, Adrian finds the harmonic language stimulating and this is ‘underpinned by a command of the orchestra’ He was emphatic in his use of the word ‘command’, stressing that Joubert knows exactly what he’s doing with a large orchestra. That’s certainly been my impression from the orchestral scores by Joubert that I’ve encountered. However, Adrian was keen to point out that melody, harmony and orchestration, while impressive in their own right, are ‘tools’ to illustrate the text. Here, he paused to pay tribute to Nicholas Fisher, an Anglican clergyman and great supporter of Joubert’s music. It was he who fashioned the libretto of An English Requiem from scriptural texts. Adrian explains that, rather like Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, Fisher’s libretto traces ‘one big journey’, starting with words from the English Funeral Rite – ‘We brought nothing into this world and we take nothing out’. So, beginning at the point of death, Joubert and Fisher trace a journey through movements entitled ‘Prayer’, ‘Judgement’, ‘Hope’, ’Faith’ and ‘Solace’. Joubert’s ‘trump card’, he believes, is the introduction of a children’s chorus in the last two movements; the sound of their voices, coming into the texture like a shaft of light, completely alters the sound-world of the work. Adrian says that he was keen to revive An English Requiem purely for the sake of its own musical merits, but the death of the composer in January brings to the performance not just added poignancy but also added importance because ‘we all know that most composers of worth are not valued until after they’ve died’. The concert at which An English Requiem will be heard will also include a performance by Natalie Clein of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in the work’s centenary year (30 July).

I wouldn’t disagree with the comment that composers of worth are often not valued during their lifetime but Three Choirs will be celebrating one composer of acknowledged worth who is still, happily, still very much with us, Sir James MacMillan celebrates his 60th birthday this year (on 16 July) and he will be a featured composer at the Festival. I was keen to learn what will be included. Adrian is a longstanding admirer of MacMillan’s music and has conducted quite a lot of it. He particularly mentioned, as ‘one of the highlights of my life’ the opportunity he got last year to conduct the BBC National Chorus of Wales in MacMillan’s Seven Angels. He describes that as ‘an apocalyptic piece; so exciting, but also disturbing’, and having heard it live twice, plus the BBCNCW broadcast, I’d certainly echo that judgement. He says that he finds all of MacMillan’s music rewarding: ‘He just has the imagination to turn something ordinary into something special.’ He believes that MacMillan is sincerely a man of the people who ‘wants his music to be appreciated and to give to as many people as possible..….He wants his music to be a means by which humans are in touch with the Divine. He is, in the best sense of the word, a religious composer of a kind of which there are not that many anymore.’ Adrian has no hesitation in declaring that MacMillan ‘has got the stamp of genius on him’.

Among MacMillan’s music at the Festival, the Wednesday Choral Evensong, which will be broadcast live on Radio 3 will be an all-MacMillan affair (31 July). James MacMillan has been invited to the Festival and he’ll be in Gloucester for the day that the Evensong is broadcast. There’ll be a public conversation between Adrian and Sir James that morning to discuss his music and career but also Adrian hopes that the conversation will range more widely over such issues as faith and philosophy. In addition, right at the start of the Festival Benjamin Nicholas and the Choir of Merton College Oxford will perform MacMillan’s magnificently eloquent Seven Last words from the Cross (26 July, Tewkesbury Abbey). Later in the week, John Scott Whiteley’s organ recital in Gloucester Cathedral will include the first performance of a new MacMillan piece (29 July).

Adrian used the term ‘genius’ of MacMillan, which led me nicely on to another genius from an earlier age: Hector Berlioz. 2019 is the 150th anniversary of his death and several of his pieces are to be performed, including the hugely ambitious and exciting undertaking that is La damnation de Faust (27 July). The work has only been done once before at Three Choirs – David Briggs conducted it at the 1998 Gloucester Festival. Adrian is a great fan of Berlioz, who he describes as ‘so inventive and daring; interesting and irrepressible.’ Several of the big choral works of Berlioz have been done at Three Choirs in recent years and Adrian wanted to honour Berlioz this year. Faust ‘is probably the most exciting thing he wrote’ and it contains music of enormous variety. As he says, the harmonies are daring, the use of the chorus is fantastic and, as well as the exciting passages such as the Ride to the Abyss, there are many passages of great beauty. A very strong team of soloists has been engaged, including Christopher Purves as Méphistophélès, Peter Hoare as Faust and Susan Bickley to sing Marguerite. The work will be performed in French and Adrian Partington will be on the rostrum.

As well as singing Berlioz in French, the Festival Chorus will be singing Handel in German. This will happen when they perform Israel in Egypt or, more accurately on this occasion, Israel in Ägypten. The Festival is mounting the UK concert premiere of Mendelssohn’s arrangement of Handel’s great oratorio (31 July). I’ve heard this through the excellent recording by Robert King (review) so the prospect of experiencing it live is, to put it mildly , an intriguing one. I wondered how it had come to be included in the Festival programme. Adrian explains that the Festival Committee thought it was high time that a Handel oratorio was done by the main Festival Chorus. The Festival has put on ‘authentic’ Handel in recent years – for example, a performance of Messiah by the Three Cathedral Choirs with a period orchestra a couple of years ago and also Israel in Egypt with the Academy of Ancient Music, recently at Hereford. Adrian was reluctant simply to do big-scale Handel but then he came across an article about the reconstruction of the Mendelssohn version, which was made for a performance in Düsseldorf in 1833. For pragmatic reasons Mendelssohn made changes to Handel’s score: for example, he used cellos and a double bass for the recitatives because the hall where the performance was to be given lacked an organ. And to support the very large chorus he added trombones and clarinets to the orchestra. A handful of choruses were cut and one or two solos were reassigned to different voices. The results, Adrian says, are very interesting and remind hm of ‘that great clash of musical personalities’ in Mozart’s arrangement of Messiah. He says that the Mendelssohn version is ‘a thrilling thing and it means that, with authenticity, we can use a big chorus.’ Only after deciding to programme the piece did he discover that this would be the first British performance because, although Robert King has recorded it ‘brilliantly’ and performed it in Europe, he hasn’t done it in the UK. This UK premiere will be conducted by Hereford Cathedral’s Director of Music, Geraint Bowen.

There’ll be a major new work by a living British composer: Bob Chilcott’s Christmas Oratorio is a Festival commission and the Three Cathedral Choirs will present its first performance, conducted by Adrian Partington (1 August). Adrian describes this opportunity as ‘thrilling’. Chilcott himself said he’d very much like to write a piece for the Festival. Adrian accepted the idea with alacrity because Bob Chilcott ‘has a tremendous following, a gift of melody and a way of writing that is subtle and direct at the same time.’ He gets lots of commissions ‘and no one is ever disappointed’. Adrian agreed with me that, like John Rutter, Chilcott’s music sounds easy but when you’re performing it it’s not that easy, especially to do it well. ‘It has to be sung often in a tender fashion and always in an extremely neat way’. So, the Festival will be marking Christmas early but there’s nothing wrong with that. And, in the spirit of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols will be in the first half of this concert. The soloist in the Chilcott work is to be Dame Sarah Connolly. This is a commission that Adrian is confident will live after the Festival. Chilcott has inserted traditional hymns set to new tunes (as he did in his St John Passion) in which the audience can join. In a nice gesture, Bob has given the name ‘Partington’ to the tune for the final hymn, ‘A Great and Mighty Wonder’, and earlier in the work another hymn tune is named for Adrian’s Hereford counterpart, Geraint Bowen. Adrian sums up the Christmas Oratorio as ‘a most attractive work’.

Adrian Partington’s week will be full of rehearsals and performances so I doubt he’ll have many opportunities to hear concerts in which he’s not involved. However, though it’s perhaps an invidious question, I asked him to single out an event that he’d like to attend as a member of the audience on an imaginary day off.  His answer was unhesitating: Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, which will be sung by Ex Cathedra, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore (29 July). ‘I just think it’s a uniquely wonderful piece and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It’s just wonderful.’ He cites the ‘end-of-era atmosphere’ of the work which was composed on the eve of the Russian Revolution which led, in due course, to a ban on the singing of church music. ‘It’s terribly beautiful and has a unique atmosphere. There isn’t another work like it’.

In one conversation Adrian Partington and I could discuss only a few Festival concerts. The week-long programme contains many other highlights. Events that have already caught my eye include Verdi’s Requiem, conducted by Edward Gardner (28 July); Walton’s First Symphony conducted by Martyn Brabbins, in a programme that also includes Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été (1 August); and Geraint Bowen conducting the mighty Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony (2 August). On the last night of the Festival Beethoven’s Ninth symphony will be paired with two unfamiliar but exciting works: Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter and David Matthews’ short choral/orchestral piece, written in 1970, Stars, all conducted by Adrian Partington (3 August).

Worcester Cathedral’s Director of Music-designate, Samuel Hudson makes his Festival debut conducting the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir in Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man and the UK premiere of Giles Swayne’s 2014 piece Our Orphan Souls (30 July). Mr Hudson will move from Blackburn Cathedral to take up his Worcester appointment in the autumn and we will see and hear much more from him next year when the Festival will be held in Worcester under his artistic directorship.

Recitals include an English song programme from baritone Roderick Williams (1 August). James Gilchrist’s recital will include songs by Ian Venables and the Carducci Quartet will join him and Anna Tillbrook for Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (31 July). Recitals by Williams and Gilchrist are self-recommending but the recital by tenor Joshua Ellicott is one that I’m especially eager to hear. In 2016 I heard Joshua Ellicott and pianist Simon Lepper perform a programme entitled ‘From your ever-loving son, Jack’ at the Cheltenham Music Festival (review). The programme was built around letters home from France written by the singer’s Great Uncle, Jack Ellicott who perished in August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Extracts from the letters were woven around discerningly chosen music to create a recital that moved me very strongly. I’m delighted that ‘From your ever-loving son, Jack’ will be performed again at this Three Choirs Festival, preceded by Finzi’s song cycle, A Young Man’s Exhortation. (30 July)

Fifty years ago, a young Adrian Partington took part in his very first Three Choirs Festival as a Worcester Cathedral chorister. He remembers Christopher Robinson’s Festival programme as a particularly exciting one. Five decades later, Mr Partington has drawn up an equally exciting and varied programme for the 2019 Three Choirs Festival.

General booking opens on 15 April. For full programme details click here. Bookings can be made online or by telephone on 01452 768928.

John Quinn

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