A thrilling navigation of The Great Journey at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [2] – Smyth, Jackson, C. Matthews: Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), The Goldfield Ensemble / Adrian Partington (conductor). Worcester Cathedral, 25.7.2021. (JQ)

Marcus Farnsworth at Three Choirs Festival 2021 (c) Michael Whitefoot

Ethel Smyth – Chrysilla; La Danse
Gabriel Jackson – In the Mendips
Colin Matthews – The Great Journey

This concert was part of the programme for the cancelled 2020 Three Choirs Festival. Colin Matthews’ The Great Journey would most certainly have fitted the design of that Festival with its theme of ‘Voyages’ and the linkage to the 400th anniversary of the voyage to the Americas of The Mayflower. However, it seemed to me, anticipating tonight’s concert, that not only did Matthews’ work sit well with the ‘Bold Adventures’ theme of the 2021 Festival but also the concert itself could very fairly be described as a Bold Adventure in that it put unfamiliar and contemporary British music centre stage at Three Choirs.

After approaching 200 performers had thronged the stage in Worcester Cathedral for the opening night concert (review), it was a great contrast to see just a few musicians assembling on the platform for the start of proceedings this evening. Dame Ethel Smyth scored the two songs which opened the programme for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello; in the second song there was the discreet addition of percussion in the form of a tambourine. (I learned from the programme notes that the songs can also be performed with a chamber orchestra.) The songs are part of a set of four which Smyth composed in 1908; they are designed for mezzo or baritone. The texts are by Henri de Régnier (1864-1936).

The first song, Chrysilla begins in a languorous, rhythmically easy vein, to which Smyth returns towards the end. In these passages I was put in mind of Fauré. The middle section is rather more individual.  The music of La Danse has something of the character of a lilting waltz and here the influence seemed to be that of Debussy. Marcus Farnsworth sang both songs very well; his French seemed excellent to me. Under Adrian Partington’s careful direction, the members of The Goldfield Ensemble accompanied both songs with a pleasing finesse. In recent years, I have heard several works by Dame Ethel, mostly on CD though the Three Choirs put on a performance of her Mass in D a few years ago, which I attended (review). I have to say that I am not yet wholly convinced by her music. However, these two songs, which were completely new to me, struck me on a first hearing as very attractive and as effective settings of the chosen texts.

Gabriel Jackson’s In the Mendips is not new to me in the sense that I had been able to listen to an audio recording on his website as part of my homework for this concert. I had never experienced it live, however. The piece, which dates from 2003, is scored for six instruments (flute, clarinet, harp, violin, viola and cello). The inspiration for the piece is a 1982 work of visual art by Richard Long (b.1945) entitled ‘Plane of Vision (The Mendips, England, 1982)’. When I interviewed Gabriel in advance of the Festival he explained that Long’s work is ‘one of his textworks, which simply lists all the things he can see from a single vantage point, be they light cloud, dark cloud, gorse, even a rucksack…and of course some of these things are seen more than once. My piece assigns a discrete musical object, as it were, to each of the things Long sees, so the pattern of juxtapositions and repetitions in his work is recreated exactly in the structure of mine.’ Since then, I have seen Richard Long’s work online. It consists of a list of words, describing, as Gabriel said, what he can see. If the work had been a “conventional” painting, one would have expected Gabriel Jackson to draw his inspiration from what he saw. Interpreting Long’s work in music is more of a challenge, I think, because the composer has to, in effect, take Long’s words as his cue and see behind them, deriving his own visual image from them and then translating that into music. So, Jackson’s score is, if you will, a double interpretation. Some of the imagery is reasonably apparent to the listener – for example the piping clarinet motif right at the start, recurring towards the end, presumably depicts Long’s ‘Light Cloud’. However, the score then presents the images so succinctly (the work plays for just over a quarter of an hour) that I wouldn’t presume to be able to ‘tie’ images to what I heard.

What I can say, though is that In the Mendips is a most attractive and inventive score. There is a good deal of very tricky writing, especially for the two woodwind players, all of which was negotiated with considerable assurance by The Goldfield Ensemble under Adrian Partington’s clear and precise direction. Jackson’s writing allows each of the players to shine at times – for instance, a rhapsodic passage for the violin, supported by the harp – and he uses combinations of instruments more effectively. One passage towards the end particularly caught my ear. In the episode in question the music is expansively lyrical with lovey singing lines. Is this, I wonder, Jackson’s response to ‘River’, or perhaps ‘Misty Levels’ in Richard Long’s work? When I first heard the recording of In the Mendips, I felt that, though the idioms are very different, this is a score which could sit nicely in a programme alongside Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. I still feel that, but having now experienced the score in live performance, my primary impression is that it’s a very successful contemporary addition to the tradition of English pastoral music. I enjoyed this excellent performance very much and it was good that the composer was present to receive acknowledgement from the audience.

Colin Matthews composed The Great Journey in 1988. It’s a most unusual and original conception. It tells the story of one of the Conquistadores, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (c 1490 – c1560). We are able to hear Cabeza de Vaca’s story in his own words because when he had returned to Spain from the Americas, he wrote a lengthy report for the Emperor Charles V. This was published in 1542 and was subsequently translated into English in 1625. Matthews adapted his text from that English translation. Cabeza de Vaca’s journeyed to the New World in 1527 when he was part of an unsuccessful expedition to Florida.

The Great Journey is divided into four parts and the narrative can be summarised as follows. Part I, ‘Shipwreck’, describes how, soon after Cabeza de Vaca landed in a bay in Cuba, a huge storm arose which dispersed and damaged the fleet, causing significant loss of life. In Part II, ‘Landing’, Cabeza de Vaca and his few surviving comrades reach the American mainland where they first encounter Indians. Later, a famine occurs and the Spaniards resolve to journey on overland to find somewhere better to live. At the start of Part III, ‘Flight’, they are about to set out on this journey when Cabeza de Vaca falls sick and is left behind. After many months enduring difficult conditions, he makes his escape and, with the help of some other Indians, he locates three other survivors of his party. During this part of the narrative Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions establish a good relationship with the Indians by healing several of them from sickness. In Part IV, ‘Return’, the intrepid explorers set out for the West coast. When they get there, they find Indian villages abandoned and destroyed. This turns out to be the work of ‘the Christians’ (in other words, their compatriots) with whom, in company with some Indians, they eventually meet up. Cabeza de Vaca leaves his reader in no doubt that his sympathies lie completely with the Indians rather than the rapacious Christians.

Just before the end of the piece Cabeza de Vaca utters some words which make it crystal clear that he had come to despise the ways of the Conquistadores: ‘Ten thousand leagues we travailed by land and sea, and we crossed from one sea to another. Much we learned, and our learning cost us much paine, at that time and on our retourn; for our Countriemen held us not in honour, and we no longer respected them’. I had not realised, until I read the composer’s programme note for this performance, that he took a slight liberty with the text in that the subsequent payoff, right at the end, has Cabeza de Vaca writing his account while in prison; this is something which Colin Matthews imagined but I think it’s a pretty fair use of imagination when one learns how our hero ended up in gaol.  Six years after he returned to Spain following the events of The Great Journey Cabeza de Vaca was appointed Governor of Paraguay. Surely influenced by his earlier experiences, he tried to rule Paraguay in a benign way but this was a disastrous failure. Recalled to Spain, he was tried and imprisoned. In Colin Matthews’ words Cabeza de Vaca ‘died obscure and dishonoured’. Thus, we can say, I think, that The Great Journey not only depicts a physical journey and a saga of human courage and endurance. It is also a moral tale, describing Cabeza de Vaca’s ‘journey’ from being a Conquistador to enlightenment.

I hope that the foregoing summary illustrates that The Great Journey is an epic tale. Yet it is a tale told by modest forces. Colin Matthews scored the work for baritone and just eight players, The instrumentation consists of flute (doubling alto flute and piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), French horn, viola, cello, double bass, piano and percussion (1 player). The percussionist is required to play a veritable battery of instruments and though it’s invidious to single out any individual from the excellent members of The Goldfield Ensemble I should mention their percussionist who, throughout the performance, darted from one of his many instruments to another; he was a very busy man.

But all the players were kept busy. It seems to me that one of Colin Matthews’ most singular achievements in The Great Journey is the wide range of illustrative colours that he draws from so few instruments. At times the scoring is dramatic and turbulent – as, for example, in the music that illustrates the storm in Part I. Elsewhere, the instrumentation is much more subtle, but no less effective – I think, for instance, of the quiet, apprehensive music at the start of Part II just before the first encounter with Indians. The members of The Goldfield Ensemble rose to the myriad challenges of the score with assurance and virtuosity. In doing so they were greatly indebted to the conducting of Adrian Partington. Watching him, I noticed him giving a plethora of cues to the players and delineating the sharp, precise rhythms and frequent changes of metre with great clarity. It must have given the players great confidence to be led by a conductor who was so clearly the master of the score.

The hero of the evening, however, was Marcus Farnsworth. He was a fairly late replacement for the advertised soloist, Roderick Williams, who, we were told beforehand, had been prevented from taking part due to complications arising from Covid quarantine requirements. It’s inconceivable that Farnsworth had the work in his repertoire – or the Smyth songs, for that matter – so he must have learnt all this challenging music in a short space of time. One would never have known; such was the assurance and commitment with which he sang the demanding solo role. And demanding it is. Colin Matthews eschews any egregious vocal effects in the score, thank goodness; the soloist is never called upon to do anything other than sing. But the baritone role covers a very wide vocal compass, it must be hugely challenging to pitch and the singer is required to deliver a very substantial amount of text. In a superb performance, Marcus Farnsworth surmounted all these challenges with seeming ease. One of many features that pleased me was the clarity of his diction. The (very) full text was printed in the programme but not once did I need to consult it. Clear diction, however, would have been insufficient by itself. What really impressed me about Marcus Farnsworth’s performance was that, commanding from the start, he visibly grew into the role as the performance unfolded, telling the story in a compelling fashion. The work played for some 52 minutes in this performance and Farnsworth had a considerable amount of singing to do but his stamina and concentration never flagged and he held our attention throughout.

In advance of the performance I had prepared by listening to the commercial recording made in 1990 (review). That recording was made under studio conditions and it has great clarity and impact. I had wondered if such a small group of musicians would be able to deliver a performance of comparable impact in the large, resonant acoustic of Worcester Cathedral. Any such concerns were quickly laid to rest. This performance had all the presence, drama and incisiveness one could wish for.

I understand that tonight’s performance of The Great Journey for 25 years. (I am also told that Adrian Partington is only the second conductor to direct the piece, the other being Lionel Friend.) I do hope that it won’t have to wait anything like as long for another outing – come on, BBC! – but I’m profoundly glad that I’ve experienced it at least once in a live performance.  The composer was present and was clearly delighted by the performance. He must have been gratified, too, by the warmth of the reception accorded both to him and to his piece.

The Great Journey is an astonishing, original piece. Tonight’s terrific performance will live long in my memory.

John Quinn


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