United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Berlioz, Elgar, Joubert: April Fredrick (soprano), Neal Davies (baritone), Natalie Clein (cello), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Three Cathedral Choir Choristers, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral 30.7.2019. (JQ)
Berlioz – Le Carnaval Romain: Ouverture caractéristique, Op.9 (1844)
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 (1919)
John Joubert – An English Requiem, Op.166 (2010)
The 2010 Three Choirs Festival was the first one at which Adrian Partington acted as Artistic Director. He made a major statement by inviting John Joubert to be composer in residence for the Festival and by commissioning him to compose a large-scale choral/orchestral work. An English Requiem was the memorable result of that commission. However, although Joubert’s music has enjoyed a well-deserved exposure on CD during the intervening years too few concert promoters seem willing to risk programming live performances of his work. It’s a cause for great regret that An English Requiem has not achieved a second performance, so far as I am aware, until tonight. I think it had been hoped that, despite advancing years, John Joubert would be able to attend tonight’s performance but, sadly, it was not to be: following a fall he died last January at the age of 91. This performance, therefore, was something of a poignant occasion.
Before we heard An English Requiem, two important anniversaries were acknowledged. The Festival programme includes several works by Berlioz to mark the 150th anniversary of his death; tonight, we heard one of his overtures. There’s not a lot of Elgar on the programme this year – there’s so much music to fit in to the space of just a week – but it was very fitting that the centenary of his Cello Concerto should be celebrated.
We began with Le Carnaval Romain. The love song near the start was beautifully voiced by the BBCNOW’s cor anglais player and I noticed also how skilfully Adrian Partington moulded the expressive ‘corners’ as the theme unfolded. When the melody was taken up by the full orchestra the sound was pleasingly warm. The quick carnival music was articulated vert well – vital in this resonant acoustic – and although the episode was fundamentally exciting, this was no mere romp through the music: Mr Partington ensured all the dynamic contrasts were properly observed. Overall, this was an excellent opener to the programme.
The young British cellist, Natalie Clein, joined the orchestra to play Elgar’s concerto. Last year I was present when she and Adrian Partington gave the work in the Royal Festival Hall, a performance which was admired by my Seen and Heard colleague, Alan Sanders (review). Miss Clein plays a 1777 Guadagnini instrument and she used it to produce lovely, warm tone tonight. Her view of the work is not, I think, heart-on-sleeve; at neither performance I’ve heard did she bring to the music the overt emotional qualities that one associates with, say, Jacqueline Du Pré. She and Mr Partington, a sensitive collaborator, brought a thoughtful, melancholy approach to the first movement. Here, and throughout the performance, one could admire not just the excellence of the soloist but also the fine way in which the BBCNOW accompanied her.
The tricky transition to the linked second movement was well negotiated and the second movement itself was lively and puckish. The celebrated Adagio lies at the heart of the work. Because it is such a perfectly fashioned emotional centre it’s easy to overlook how short it actually is: only some sixty bars in length. Tonight’s performance was tender, with Natalie Clein offering controlled intensity in her playing and the orchestra refined in its approach. The finale was spirited and Adrian Partington allowed the orchestra to have its head without overpowering the solo instrument. Eventually, Elgar finds himself unable to resist a passage of profound introspection. It’s a wonderful episode. Indeed, J B Priestley, in his 1947 play, The Linden Tree, has one of the characters memorably describe this section as Elgar ‘wandering through the darkening house of life – touching all the things he loved – crying farewell – forever – forever.’ I thought this part of the movement was beautifully realised tonight and when the reminiscence of the third movement was reached Miss Clein impressed me with her inwardness. This was a very fine performance of the concerto by all concerned.
That said, and despite the strong applause, this performance may not have presented the whole story of the work to some who heard it. A few months ago, my Seen and Heard colleague, Claire Seymour, writing about Elgar’s late chamber music, which is all contemporaneous with the Concerto, wrote memorably of ‘that ‘reaching’ quality in Elgar’s music: a sense of deep yearning beneath the refinement, an emotional intensity that, while confined within aristocratic gestures, can leave one almost on the verge of tears – almost physically wrought by the time the final cadence at last brings emotional release.’ I’m not sure we got that from Natalie Clein. Indeed, my guest, who knows the work extremely well from the inside, remarked afterwards that she didn’t find the performance as ‘heart-rending’ as she would have wished. I understand that, and on another day, I might well agree but tonight I found Miss Clein’s way with the music refreshing.
John Joubert’s An English Requiem received its world premiere performance at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival, here in Gloucester Cathedral. I remember being very impressed at the time, though in the run-up to this revival I made sure not to read my original review. Hearing the music again, nine years later – and with further experience of Joubert’s music under my belt – I was struck by just how good much of the music is. (To all intents and purposes, I was coming to it afresh after nine years.) I also noted how very skilful is Nicholas Fisher’s libretto, which is woven together from the Bible, using the New Revised Standard Version.
An English Requiem is constructed in six movements to which Joubert gave titles: Intimations; Prayer; Judgement; Hope; Faith; Solace. As the composer himself put it in a programme note, these movements ‘proceed from the earliest premonition of death towards a realisation of its ultimate inevitability – and beyond.’
In many ways, Intimations seemed to me to contain some of the finest music in the whole piece. The highly effective and imaginative orchestration conveyed a true sense of foreboding while the powerful choral writing evoked extreme apprehension, verging on despair. Prayer is a solo movement for the baritone. The solo writing is eloquent and Neal Davies delivered it very well, repeating his success when he sang in the work’s premiere. The orchestral accompaniment is consistently interesting, including the use of a solo horn at the start and finish of the movement. The chorus returns in Judgement. As can be inferred from the title, this is a big, dramatic movement. The orchestral writing is often founded upon punchy, menacing rhythms and the choral writing calls for very clear articulation, which requirement was certainly fulfilled tonight. The composer has acknowledged that the Brahms Requiem is an inspiration in the sense that An English Requiem is not a setting of the Mass for the Dead but, rather, meditates on aspects of death through scriptural sources. The Brahms Requiem is an influence in another way, I think, in that Joubert’s work contains a couple of big choral fugues. The first of these comes in this third movement and the fugal subject uses the words ’The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, forgive us, forgive us for your name’s sake’. As the length of this sentence suggests, the fugal subject itself is a long one. It’s also, in my humble opinion, not a particular ‘user-friendly’ subject, winding as it does, up and down over the span of an octave. I think the musical subject is s too complex – it’s not one of Joubert’s more memorable melodies, and as each of the four choral parts is added, the music becomes too dense for its own good, I believe. The fugue leads to a huge climax which was delivered in a most exciting fashion by the Festival Chorus with strong support from the orchestra.
The fourth movement, Hope, is for the soprano soloist. In the 2010 premiere the role was sung by Carolyn Sampson. Tonight, we heard the young American soprano, April Fredrick. Miss Fredrick has been based in the UK for several years and she has immersed herself in the music of her adopted country. Only a few weeks ago I heard her give the premiere of an important new work, Le Lac, by David Matthews (review). She came to this performance with impressive credentials in the music of Joubert; she sang the title role in the superb live recording of his fine opera, Jane Eyre (review). This movement in An English Requiem is a major test for the soprano solo. The part is wide-ranging, covering a wide compass, right up to top C-flat. Much of writing places the singer in her high register and keeps her there in long, expressive melodic lines. Miss Fredrick was tireless in putting the music across and never sounded under any strain. Furthermore, and critically, she put the music across with great conviction, not least the ravishing quiet end of the movement. This was an impressive piece of singing.
The following movement, Faith, is for chorus with the addition of a separate boys’ choir Choristers from the Three Cathedral Choirs lined up on the organ screen, above and behind the rest of the performers. The main choir sings ‘What can separate us from the love of Christ?’ and the tone of the music has more warmth to it compared with what has gone before. After a while an unaccompanied semi chorus sings a fugue to words beginning ‘For God so loved the world…’ I’d found the earlier fugue subject unmemorable but this tune is distinctly memorable, if long, and it is well worked out by Joubert. Later in the movement, though, the same fugue returns, this time sung by the full choir with orchestral accompaniment. I wonder why this was necessary. With the best will in the world I have to say that there’s rather too much repetition of material in this movement. The other snag is that the boys could not be heard. I don’t blame the performers for this: when they sing the scoring is very full and, indeed, their line is doubled in the orchestra. Dare I suggest that the composer miscalculated the balance here? When the performance is broadcast perhaps the boys will come across better. Finally, all the performers are united in the last movement Solace. The movement contains passages for both soloists, the one for the soprano being especially pleasing. There are some large climaxes in this movement, radiating confidence and hope, but eventually the work achieves a lovely, subdued end.
Though I have one or two misgivings I still remain convinced that An English Requiem deserves to be regarded as a significant addition to the English choral/orchestral repertoire. By my calculation the performance tonight played for 42 minutes. Into that fairly compact timescale John Joubert packs an awful lot of musical invention and emotional feeling.
Joubert’s music was very well served in performance, as was the memory of this distinguished composer. Both soloists excelled. The BBCNOW played with great skill and commitment. The Festival Chorus were absolutely on top of the music. Joubert’s choral writing, though highly effective, is far from straightforward and this piece was a very different test for the Chorus in comparison to their Berlioz and Verdi earlier in the week. Following the performance in the score, I noted how accurate it was, not least in the matter of dynamics. Adrian Partington conducted with evident belief in the score and compete mastery of it.
The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future transmission. I don’t know when it will be broadcast but my guess would be that this will happen sometime in September when the Proms are finished. I hope this broadcast will bring An English Requiem to the wider audience it undoubtedly deserves. In that connection, it would be even better if a way could be found in due course to issue the BBC recording on CD.