United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Fauré, G. Williams, Duruflé: Charlotte Sleet (mezzo-soprano), Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir, Peter Dyke (organ), Philharmonia Orchestra / Geraint Bowen (conductor). Worcester Cathedral, 28.7.2021. (JQ)
Fauré – Cantique de Jean Racine
Grace Williams – Sea Sketches
Duruflé – Requiem
The Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir was established in 2010 and it gives a concert at the Festival every year. It is a great initiative, giving young singers (up to the age of 18, I think) from the catchment area an opportunity to work intensively with one of the cathedral Directors of Music on an interesting and challenging programme. This year, Hereford Cathedral’s Geraint Bowen was in charge. I always try to attend the Youth Choir’s concert and this year’s programme was especially alluring because it included two of my favourite French choral works, both of which I have greatly enjoyed singing on a number of occasions in the past.
Tonight, I counted some 40 singers on the platform. That is terrifically encouraging when one considers how the Covid restrictions have impacted education and choral singing in the last 16 months. Also gathered onstage was a reduced complement of strings (6/6/4/4/2, I think) from the Philharmonia.
Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine opened the proceedings. It is an early work, dating from 1865 when the composer was just 19; but, my goodness, it’s a little jewel. The Youth Choir gave a lovely performance. As one might expect, given the age of the singers, the tenor and bass voices were somewhat light but the ensemble made a fresh, appealing sound. I admired both the clarity of their diction and the excellent attention to dynamics. The silky sound of the Philharmonia strings (and harp) gave the performance an ideal foundation.
Geraint Bowen has Welsh roots – his father was the distinguished tenor Kenneth Bowen (1932-2018) – so it was a very nice touch to invite him to conduct Sea Sketches by Grace Williams (1906-1977). Richard Bratby’s programme notes reminded us that when Williams wrote this work for string orchestra in 1944, she was living in London, though she returned home to Wales the following year. The five movements of Sea Sketches demonstrate that, even when living in land-locked London, Williams had the ability to conjure up memories of seascapes and to translate them into music. When I have heard the work before – on the radio or on CD – I believe that a larger string section has usually been involved. However, tonight I didn’t feel that the smaller body of strings meant any real sacrifice in tonal weight; instead, the chamber-sized forces imbued the textures with great clarity. The opening ‘High Wind’ was projected with good energy. A highlight was the third movement, ‘Channel Sirens’; here, Williams’ writing evokes a subdued, impressionist haze and I appreciated very much the sensitivity with which the music was played. The final movement, ‘Calm Sea in Summer’ was equally impressive. For the most part the music in this movement is gentle in tone; Geraint Bowen and the Philharmonia gave us a very expressive performance.
The sublime Requiem of Maurice Duruflé was completed in 1947. It exists in three versions: accompanied by organ only (my favourite); for full orchestra with organ (which works with a large choir but sacrifices the essential intimacy of the work); or for small orchestra and organ. The latter is an ideal ‘compromise’, adding extra colours without inflating the scale of the music. That’s the version Geraint Bowen chose tonight. To the string choir were added harp, two trumpets, timpani and organ.
The choir sang the work very well; their discipline was very good indeed and it was evident that they had a high degree of engagement with this beautiful music – they had clearly been prepared thoroughly. It must be said that there were times when I felt a lack of tonal weight in the tenor and bass lines – the choral sound was somewhat biased towards the soprano line – but in compensation we heard a very pleasing, fresh and attractive choral sound. Having said that the tenors and basses were, inevitably, a bit light in vocal weight, I must commend them for the way in which they sang two short passages – in the Offertoire and in the ‘Libera me’ – which can be sung by a solo baritone. That is the way these passages are often performed but the composer put a note in the front of the vocal score in which he said it is ‘préférable’ that the passages be sung by all the baritones and second tenors. That was followed tonight and the young men of the Youth Choir made a fine job of both episodes; their unanimity was impressive.
There is one other solo passage in the work, the ‘Pie Jesu’, which is set for mezzo soprano. For this number Charlotte Sleet stepped forward from the ranks of the choir. She stood just in front of the first row of the choir – in other words, behind the orchestra – and I was mildly surprised she didn’t sing from nearer the front of the stage. It mattered not. My seat was about two-thirds of the way down the nave and I could hear her clearly, even when she followed the marking and allowed her voice to die away almost to nothing at the very end. This solo is a taxing assignment but Miss Sleet sang with great assurance and a very nice, evenly produced tone. She sang expressively but in a very natural fashion. This was an impressive piece of singing. Praise is due, too, for the eloquent cello playing of Timothy Walden. If the ‘Pie Jesu’ was a highlight, then the other was the ethereal ‘In Paradisum’ with which the work ends. The Youth Choir’s sopranos produced bright, seraphic tone and maintained the line expertly as the performance came to a warm, tranquil conclusion.
In this last movement Geraint Bowen gave the music all the time needed to unfold naturally. Elsewhere, though, I had the sense that the tempi were often just a fraction too brisk. It must be very difficult music to pace: one wants to maintain the seamless flow of the plainchant-derived melodies but, on the other hand, the music needs space in order to achieve the right degree of expressiveness. I timed the performance at roughly 35 minutes in duration, whereas between 37 and 39 minutes seems to be the norm on most of the recordings I have. Although I would have wished for a little more space, I thought Mr Bowen conducted, as usual, calmly and clearly; that must have given his young singers extra confidence. Though I thought the trumpets were just a little too prominent at times, the members of the Philharmonia offered cultivated playing throughout the performance. The choir’s singing was very impressive. As was the case in the Fauré, their diction and observance of dynamics was excellent. They showed great commitment to the music in an accomplished performance.
I enjoyed this short concert very much.