United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Handl, Victoria, Britten, Chilcott: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Neal Davies (baritone), Three Cathedral Choirs; Philharmonia Players / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 1.8.2019. (JQ)
Handl – Impetum inimicorum
Victoria – Lætatus sum
Britten – A Ceremony of Carols
Bob Chilcott – Christmas Oratorio (Festival commission – world premiere)
Christmas came early in Gloucester this year as the Three Choirs Festival unveiled the new commissioned Christmas piece by Bob Chilcott, placing it alongside other music appropriate to the Christmas season.
Before hearing the new work, the Three Cathedral Choirs sang other Christmas music. First, the lay clerks sang two polychoral pieces, by Jacob Handl (1550-1591) and by the great Spanish master, Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). Both are imposing, joyful pieces and the lay clerks did them very well.
Then the choristers, accompanied by the Philharmonia’s harpist, sang Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. The harpist was not credited in the programme and I couldn’t quite catch her name when the BBC Radio 3 announcer, Nicola Heywood-Thomas mentioned it. Whichever harpist was involved, she played marvellously, especially in the Interlude, which was delivered with finesse and imagination, giving the music a quasi-improvisatory feel.
The boy choristers did the carols very well, their sound fresh, clear and enthusiastic. I should mention that they sang this music, which is far from straightforward, from memory. ‘Wolcum Yole!’ was crisply delivered and Adrian Partington ensured good observance of the dynamics. The treble solos are far from easy, as I well remember from my own days as a treble several decades ago. Six different trebles took solo roles and all of them did well. ‘This little babe’ was driven along strongly by Mr Partington and the boys responded with alacrity. Even better – and more biting – was ‘Adam lay i-bounden’ towards the end. Given the layout of the cathedral at Festival time, with staging and seating all over the place, it would have been impossible for the boys to process on and off the stage singing ‘Hodie Christus natus est’. However, at the end of the work the boys very skilfully suggested a recessional thanks to a well-controlled diminuendo. I enjoyed this performance very much.
Though there was an interval at this point, there was no break for the audience: instead we had choir practice, directed by Adrian Partington! An important element in Bob Chilcott’s new work, acting as structural pillars, as it were, is the inclusion of number of hymns in which the audience/congregation is encouraged to join. Participation in these hymns draws the listener in, just as the chorales do in Bach’s Passions. In doing this Chilcott has continued a trend which he established in his 2013 setting of the St John Passion (review). These hymn tunes are newly minted by Chilcott and all of them are eminently singable, especially the first and fourth. We were all give printed copies of the four hymns and Adrian Partington put us through our paces, though there was only sufficient time for us to have a go at two of the hymns; he declared he’d trust us with the second and third hymns at sight, In a nice touch, Bob Chilcott has named each of these tunes after friends and colleagues. The tune for the final hymn, ‘A Great and Mighty Wonder’, bears the name ‘Partington’ and earlier in the work another hymn tune is named for the Hereford Director of Music, Geraint Bowen
The Christmas Oratorio is scored for SATB choir and several soloists: the tenor is the Evangelist; Mary is sung by the mezzo; the bass takes the role of Simeon. Other smaller solo parts, including Gabriel (tenor), Angel (soprano) and Herod (bass), are taken by members of the choir. Chilcott has conceived the work to be accompanied in two different ways. One version requires just organ and flute. The other scoring, which we heard today, requires a small ensemble consisting of flute, two trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba, timpani, harp and organ.
The Oratorio is founded upon the narrative of the birth of Christ, as related in the Gospel of St. Luke. Into this, Chilcott has woven settings for the choir of a number of familiar Christmas texts by authors such as Percy Dearmer, Christina Rossetti and Robert Herrick. Settings of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’ have been included, in recognition that the premiere of this work was given in a cathedral where these canticles are part of the daily fabric of worship. The work is ‘bookended’, as the composer terms it, by two different translations of the medieval German hymn, ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’.
As you might expect from this composer, the music is highly attractive. The choral writing is effective and good, as is the instrumental accompaniment, though there were one or two occasions when I wondered if the brass quintet writing was not just a little too powerful. The tenor soloist, as the Evangelist, is at the centre of the work; in fact, the Evangelist’s part is more extensive that I had expected. The young tenor, Nick Pritchard, was an ideal choice for this role. He sang with clarity and sincerity and the sheer quality of the sound he made was most pleasing. The Evangelist is accompanied always by the harp.
The role of Mary was sung by Dame Sarah Connolly. As is well known, she has been obliged to cancel some engagements over the summer while receiving medical treatment and I had wondered if she’d be able to fulfil this commitment. My fears were groundless. Not only did Dame Sarah appear but the quality of her singing gave no hint whatsoever of any indisposition. The character of Mary has a couple of important solos, one being in the setting of the ‘Magnificat’ in which the soloist sings with the choir. This is a very pleasing episode in the work and Sarah Connolly sang very expressively. Incidentally, this was one of the occasions when I thought the brass quintet contribution was a bit on the heavy side. The mezzo’s second solo is a setting of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Love came down at Christmas’. Sarah Connolly sang this touchingly and with gentle fervour. A popular and frequent guest at Three Choirs, she was a most welcome presence today; let us hope she is soon restored to full health.
The third principal soloist is the baritone though we had to wait a long time to hear from Neal Davies. Chilcott takes the Christmas story through to the Presentation in the Temple. This enables him to include the role of Simeon and also to incorporate a setting of the ’Nunc dimittis’. The ‘Nunc’ is tranquil and lyrical. Neal Davies was in fine voice and I enjoyed his contributions.
The small solo roles were all very capably taken from members of the choir. I’d single out for special mention Rachel Roper, who I heard briefly in La damnation de Faust a few days ago. Here, she had a slightly more extended opportunity as the Angel and once again her singing gave great pleasure. Tenor Edward Rimmer also made a very strong contribution early on as Gabriel.
The combined Three Cathedral Choirs gave a very good account of themselves under Adrian Partington’s expert direction. I am sure that they enjoyed this assignment. I especially admired their unaccompanied singing in the very appealing setting of ‘A boy was born’ but, in truth, all of the choral singing was excellent.
And though I hesitate to ‘mark my own homework’ I should say that the audience joined in the four hymns to excellent effect. Bob Chilcott’s new tunes are all very good but ‘As with gladness men of old’ is a fine melody and easy to pick up. ‘A great and mighty wonder’, the last of the work’s fourteen sections, gave us another earworm tune and brought the oratorio to a rousing conclusion.
Bob Chilcott has done it again, composing an attractive and sincere piece which will surely appeal to audiences and choirs alike. I am sure it won’t be long before other choirs are pressing their conductors to take it up. And the presence today of a number of choral directors from the USA, including one of the most eminent in the field, suggests to me that it will swiftly be a success on both sides of the Atlantic. It certainly received a fine launch today from Adrian Partington and his performers, clearly delighting the composer, who was given a very warm reception.
You’ll have to wait a little while to judge both work and performance for yourself. BBC Radio 3 recorded the concert for future transmission but the Corporation isn’t as ready as the Three Choirs Festival to anticipate the festive season. The concert will be broadcast in the ‘Radio 3 in concert’ slot on 18 December 2019.