A Blazing Beethoven Ninth Ends the Three Choirs Festival Triumphantly

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [14] – David Matthews, Holst, Beethoven: Ilona Domnich (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (alto), Andrew Staples (tenor), David Stout (baritone). Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 3.8.2019. (JQ)

Ilona Domnich (soprano) and Adrian Partington (conductor) (c) Michael Whitefoot

David MatthewsStars, Op.3 (1970, rev. 2019)

Holst The Mystic Trumpeter Op.18 (1904, rev. 1912)

Beethoven – Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op 125 ‘Choral’

For the closing concert of the 2019 Three Choirs Festival the Artistic Director, Adrian Partington, had devised a programme which mixed the familiar and the unfamiliar. Indeed, in the case of David Matthews’ short cantata, Stars we heard a work that I doubt any member of the audience had ever heard before, apart from the composer himself, who was with us in the cathedral. I think I am correct in saying that tonight Stars received only its third performance. The 1970 premiere was given in London by the London Bach Society and their conductor, Paul Steinitz, for whom the piece was written. The Faber Music website also notes a 1984 performance by the Darlington Choral Society. For this Three Choirs performance Matthews made some revisions to the score, which he describes as ‘not extensive’.

The work is scored from SATB choir and a small orchestra which comprises 3 oboes (third doubling cor anglais); bassoon; three trumpets; two trombones; timpani and strings. The orchestral scoring was dictated by the forces required for other pieces which were played on the occasion of the premiere – Bach cantatas, I suspect. David Matthews asked his friend, Peter Holman, now a well-known musicologist, to write a text for him. Holman’s poem has four stanzas and I didn’t find that I could grasp at all the thread of the poem, which is quite minimalist. In a note on the website of his publishers, Faber Music, the composer writes about the genesis of Stars, explaining that he and Holman ‘were both obsessed at that time with Stravinsky’s cantata The King of the Stars and this was our initial model. The title of the poem was a deliberate allusion to Stravinsky’s work, though it is quite different from the poem by Konstantin Balmont that Stravinsky set. Stravinsky’s comment that he didn’t really understand Balmont’s poem but its words were good led me to ask for words that were good to sing as my first criterion. The choral writing is almost entirely harmonic and essentially simple, though the chords are often very dense: the only piece of contrapuntal writing occurs near the end. The writing for instruments on the other hand is much more linear and often fairly elaborate.’

The piece is short – about 7 minutes in this performance. The choir is divided into as many as 15 parts – there are, for example, five soprano and five alto parts. This enables Matthews to write very complex, dense harmonies for the choir. Much of the choral writing is chordal in nature and I must admit I enjoyed the music more when the choir were singing than in the brief episodes for orchestra alone. The work opens slowly and mysteriously; the choral parts continue in that vein for quite some time until suddenly, partway through the third stanza (I think) the volume increases significantly and the textures become much more obviously complex. As the work wound down to a soft conclusion there was a cameo solo role for soprano Rachel Roper.

David Matthews was quoted in the programme note as saying that Stars ‘is quite different from what I write today’. Based on some fine recent works of his that I have heard recently – the Ninth Symphony, the Concerto for Orchestra and the cantata for soprano and orchestra, Le Lac – I would say that’s true. Matthews’ current style is founded strongly on melody nowadays and I didn’t discern much melody in Stars. However, this work shows that even fifty years ago David Matthews was writing interesting harmonies and had a fine ear for interesting textures. I am glad to have heard the work but I prefer his more recent music. I think it would be fair to say that Stars was received politely. The Festival Chorus are to be commended for tackling this challenging short work and making a convincing job of it.

Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter has not been as neglected as Stars – I know of three commercial recordings – but it’s still a rarity in concert halls. There is  a tenuous link with Stars in that the documentation accompanying one of the recordings of The Mystic Trumpeter describes the score as edited by Colin Matthews who is, of course, the composer brother of David Matthews. Prior to the performance I didn’t know if Adrian Partington would be using that edition of the score tonight, but the programme notes confirmed this to be the case. On the previous evening we had heard Vaughan Williams’ mighty Sea Symphony, which sets poetry by Walt Whitman. Holst was as taken with Whitman’s poetry as was his great friend, VW and The Mystic Trumpeter is a setting of verses by the American poet.

The Mystic Trumpeter is a poem which forms part of From Noon to Starry Night (Leaves of Grass) (1891-92). According to Imogen Holst, her father first encountered Whitman’s poetry in the mid-1890s while he was a student at the Royal College of Music and The Mystic Trumpeter impressed him particularly. In 1904 he set the poem for soprano and large orchestra and Imogen states that it was ‘the biggest work he had yet written’. She adds that ‘1904 was a turning-point in his career as a composer. He was beginning to escape from ten years of Wagner-worship, and he had not yet come under the influence of the revival of English folk-song’.

To sing The Mystic Trumpeter the Festival welcomed the young Russian soprano, Ilona Domnich. I think she may have been based in the UK for a few years now because she studied at the Royal College of Music and her biography revels that she has done quite a lot of work with British opera companies. Nonetheless, Walt Whitman’s poetry – which, frankly, is often the poetic equivalent of purple prose – must present quite a challenge to a non-Anglophone singer. Notwithstanding that, Ms Domnich seemed undaunted by the language and I found her performance very convincing. I also enjoyed the sound of her voice. I suspect she was a little nervous at first, but she soon settled and sang the music with considerable conviction. The soprano part is a demanding one – and here we had a singer who seemed equal to all Holst’s demands – but to be honest, the most interesting aspect of The Mystic Trumpeter is the orchestration. The scoring is inventive throughout and gives a number of hints that The Planets lay not too far in the future. I strongly suspect that Ilona Domnich had learned this piece specially for the occasion. She was fortunate, then, that she had Adrian Partington on the podium to direct the performance with clarity and empathy for the music.

I understand from recent media reports that the Festival has attracted flak from some of its patrons who declared they would not buy tickets for this concert because they considered it provocative that the programme contained Beethoven’s Ninth, part of which has been adopted as the EU anthem! How depressing that our national discourse has descended to such a puerile level. The Cathedral Canon who introduced the concert alluded to this mini-controversy, commenting, to warm applause, that ’music always transcends any labels’. Amen to that. Anyway, the Brexit virtue signallers who boycotted the concert missed a performance of great distinction.

Adrian Partington conducted a gripping account of the first movement. The music was made taut and dynamic, with rhythms sharply articulated. He paced the movement sensibly – energetically but not unduly driven. In the development section there were some passages of genuine turbulence. The symphony was off to a very good start. After all the Sturm und Drang of the first movement, the Scherzo was joyful and energetic. I admired the precision of the Philharmonia’s playing. The Trio section was good-hearted and often playful. The third movement is a wonderful, lyric creation and tonight’s performance was a conspicuous success. This serene music unfolded on a stream of mellow orchestral tone. I thought Mr Partington paced the movement ideally, allowing the music to flow and sing. Splendidly played from start to finish, this performance was very fine.

The finale began after the briefest of pauses. The cello/double bass recitatives were very swiftly played and though I have heard the recits presented in this way before it always slightly disconcerts me. Tonight, however, I realised how precisely this had been calculated by the conductor. The passages have to be fast if the exchanges between the recits and the rest of the orchestra just before the big tune is first heard are to make sense. When that famous tune arrived, it was unfolded at a flowing tempo. That, too, might have caused some eyebrows to rise but I suspect Mr Partington had his eye on the moment when the tune is played by the full orchestra; he wanted to avoid that sounding portentous – and he succeeded.

David Stout was commanding at his first entry; his solo was splendidly delivered. A little later on, Andrew Staples was ringing in his delivery of the tenor’s martial solo. The solo quartet all did well but I thought the men made a stronger impression, simply because their voices carried more clearly.

The real heroes, though, were the Festival Chorus. What a sound they made! When the choir sang the big tune in full harmony immediately after the orchestral interlude, the sound was absolutely thrilling. The Chorus has been through an exhausting week of singing but anyone hearing them tonight for the first time might reasonably have concluded that this was the first night of the Festival, not the last. The men were superb at ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’, really proclaiming the message. Though much of the choral contribution was full-on, as it must be, there was no lack of subtlety when called for; ‘ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?’ benefitted from admirable dynamic control. The end was tumultuous Adrian Partington galvanised his forces and the Festival Chorus, gathering themselves for one last effort, entered the home stretch sweeping all before them. The symphony ended in an orchestral blaze from the magnificent Philharmonia. Mr Partington, in an interpretation of depth and dynamism, had ensured that his performers strained every sinew to bring the Festival to a triumphant conclusion.

So that’s it; the Three Choirs Festival is all over for another year. I think it has been a terrific festival and though I have covered quite a few events I’ve only scratched the surface of a richly varied programme. There have been many highlights, including Merton College Choir’s superb programme of contemporary sacred music; the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil from Ex Cathedra; the fine Elgar/Joubert concert; and three excellent recitals from Joshua Ellicott, James Gilchrist and Roderick Williams. But if asked to name the stand-out concert, I would have no hesitation in nominating the supremely exciting account of La damnation de Faust. At all the major choral/orchestral concerts I have attended, the standard of orchestral playing has been terrifically high. We mustn’t overlook the excellent contribution of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to the Elgar/Joubert concert, but the lion’s share of the work has fallen on the shoulders of the Philharmonia Orchestra and they’ve delivered the goods – in spades. I am sure it is a major financial outlay for the Festival to engage this top-class London orchestra every year but, my goodness, the artistic results are their own justification. I do hope that it will be possible to continue for many years to come this highly successful collaboration between Three Choirs and the Philharmonia Orchestra, who are about to start their 75th season.

The Festival Chorus deserve – indeed demand – a mention all of their own. They have been faced with a varied and very challenging repertoire this year but they’ve stepped up to the plate every time. One should not underestimate the commitment of these amateur singers who attend two rehearsals each week from Easter onwards and then have a punishing schedule of rehearsals with orchestra and performances during the Festival week itself. Only one night off in eight tells its own story. But I think the Festival Chorus has been in terrific form all week: this is the finest Festival Chorus that I can remember hearing. Their performances reflect huge credit on those responsible for preparing them: Adrian Partington, Geraint Bowen and Nicholas Freestone, the Assistant Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral.

Now the focus shifts to Worcester, where the 2020 Festival will be staged. This will mark the debut as Artistic Director of Samuel Hudson, who takes up his post as Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral in the autumn. The Festival will include the theme of voyage in the year that we will mark the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers’ journey to America in The Mayflower in 1620. Thus, music by several American composers will be included. The outline details have been announced. The repertoire includes such staples as Elgar’s The Music Makers and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast but there’ll also be some intriguing rarities. These include the cantata Hora Novissima (1893) by the American composer, Horatio Parker (1863-1919). Ivor Atkins invited Parker to conduct a performance of this work at the 1899 Worcester Festival (Atkins’ first) but it has remained unheard at Three Choirs ever since. There will be an equally rare performance of a choral work by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1869-1960): his Odysseus: symphony in four movements (1937-8), which I doubt has ever been performed at Three Choirs. Both of these are works which I have only heard on CD so I’m intrigued.’

There will also be music of our own time and I am particularly excited to learn that there will be the premiere of a large-scale choral/orchestral work by Gabriel Jackson, the title of which is as yet unannounced. That will be conducted by guest conductor David Hill. There’ll be another important work by Jackson, albeit on a smaller scale, his setting of the Stabat Mater, which will be performed by the group for whom it was written, The Marian Consort (review). I am also looking forward to hearing for the first time a work by Colin Matthews, The Great Journey which tells the story of the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

Sadly, we must wait a year for all this. The Festival will run from 25 July to 1 August 2020. Further details will no doubt be on the Three Choirs Festival website soon. In the meantime, it is congratulations to Gloucester on a splendid 2019 Festival

John Quinn      

2 thoughts on “A Blazing Beethoven Ninth Ends the Three Choirs Festival Triumphantly”

  1. Mr Quinn’s reviews of this year’s concerts have been most complimentary and detailed for which I am most grateful. However, as the Three Choirs Festival Chorus this year included both a male alto and a female tenor, it would be nice if Mr Quinn referred to sopranos and altos or tenors and basses rather than ladies and men in order to reflect the singers involved accurately.

  2. I’m glad you appreciated the reviews. I’m sorry if I didn’t reflect the gender make up with 100% accuracy but when one is writing a large number of reviews in a short space of time the odd detail may get missed. I think my main job is to give readers a sense of the music and performance and I hope that overall I achieved that.


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