The thrilling premiere of The World Imagined at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [4] – Coleridge Taylor, Elgar, Gabriel Jackson: Nick Pritchard (tenor), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / David Hill (conductor). Worcester Cathedral, 27.7.2021. (JQ)

Nick Pritchard (tenor) and David Hill (conductor) (c) M. Whitefoot

Coleridge TaylorSolemn Prelude
ElgarEnigma Variations
Gabriel JacksonThe World Imagined (Festival commission; world premiere)

When I interviewed him recently, this year’s Three Choir Festival Artistic Director Samuel Hudson said ‘it’s so exciting for me as a performer and as a Director to feel part of a living, on-going tradition that links back to all those wonderful composers that we all know and love, but is also looking to the future’. This programme was a shining example of that philosophy in action. We opened with two works that were heard at the 1899 Festival in Worcester – though not in the same concert – and after the interval we came right up to date with the world premiere of a major new work, commissioned by the Festival, from one of Britain’s foremost choral composers.

The new work was The World Imagined by Gabriel Jackson. Prefacing it were two orchestral works. Elgar’s Enigma Variations is one of the best-loved of all English orchestral works, and rightly so. It was the work with which he achieved his great breakthrough. On 13 September 1899, the Three Choirs Festival put on a performance of it and Elgar, who had regularly played as a violinist in the orchestra at past Festivals, was on the rostrum to conduct. Since then, the Variations have travelled the world. The same can scarcely be said of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Solemn Prelude.

Solemn Prelude wasn’t the first time that a work by Coleridge Taylor had been played at Three Choirs; he had achieved a success at the 1898 Gloucester Festival. Herbert Brewer was looking for a new orchestral piece and on the recommendations of Elgar and of August Jaeger, he entrusted the task to Coleridge Taylor. Elgar had strongly endorsed Coleridge Taylor to Brewer as ‘far away the cleverest fellow amongst the young men’. The Ballade in A major was composed for the Festival and it went down well in Gloucester. That presumably set the stage for Ivor Atkins to include Solemn Prelude at the 1899 Festival in Worcester. This was Atkins’ first Festival after succeeding Hugh Blair as Organist of the Cathedral. I learned from the indispensable history of the Three Choirs Festival by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley (review) that it was the first work in a morning concert in Worcester Cathedral, one of those monster programmes which were so popular in those days. Coleridge Taylor himself conducted the performance before ceding the rostrum to Atkins.

So far as is known, Solemn Prelude has never been performed since that 1899 Three Choirs premiere. From an article in the Festival programme, I learned that a piano reduction of the piece was made available, but not the full score; the orchestral parts were lost. Recently, Festival CEO Alexis Paterson discovered that the manuscript full score, from which the composer conducted the premiere, was located in the British Library. A new edition, based on that score, has been created by Faber Music, who are now publishing the work; this was used for tonight’s performance.

The piece plays for about 11 minutes. Right from the start, the young composer’s debt to Stanford, his teacher at the Royal College of Music, was evident, both in the scoring and in the cut of the thematic material – I think, for example, of a melody, based on sequences, heard on the violins about one minute into the piece; this proved to be a key element in the work. But the influence of senior composers, which was perhaps only to be expected, mattered less than the confidence with which Coleridge Taylor went about his task. True, the strings carried most of the thematic argument throughout, but the young composer (just 24 years old at the time of the premiere) handled his material confidently and wrote with no little assurance for the orchestra. There are some big, bold statements in this short piece and they registered all the more strongly thanks to the urgent, full-blooded approach taken by David Hill. He and the Philharmonia played the music with relish and did it proud. I don’t think a hidden masterpiece was unveiled here tonight but, on the other hand, Solemn Prelude was well worth reviving. It made a very good opener to this concert and I hope further performances will follow.

In 1899 Solemn Prelude was performed in a morning concert in the cathedral. On the evening of the same day, in Worcester Public Hall, Edward Elgar conducted his Enigma Variations. The first performance of this score had been given in London a few works earlier, but Worcester can still claim a premiere. After the first performance of Enigma, Elgar revised and expanded the coda at the urging of his friend August Jaeger. In this Worcester concert Elgar conducted the first performance of the revised version. So, in Worcester the work as we know it today was heard for the first time.

Driving to the concert I had thought that I would probably say little about Enigma; after all, the work is so familiar and surely the focus of the review should be on the two previously unknown works. As it turned out, tonight’s account of Enigma was of such quality that it demands more attention. David Hill and the Philharmonia set their stall out early on with an affectionate, warm exposure of the Theme. One characteristic of Hill’s conducting was soon apparent. He used a baton for the variations that employed the fullest orchestra, such as ‘Troyte’; however, for much of the time he put the baton down and shaped and moulded the music in the way that he would have done if conducting a smallish choir. I don’t think it was a coincidence, then, that the playing of what I might call these smaller scale variations had a singing quality. ‘Nimrod’ was beautifully delivered. At the opening night performance of Music Makers we had heard Elgar quote this theme with great sensitivity to eulogise his friend Jaeger, who had died in 1909. Here, in its original context, Elgar assuredly did not conceive the music as an elegy; rather, it is a noble expression of friendship and deep regard, which is just how it came across tonight. How perceptive it was of Elgar to follow the big statement of ‘Nimrod’ with the charming hesitancy of ‘Dorabella’; I greatly admired the finesse with which the Philharmonia played this. In the penultimate ‘Romanza’ variation, the Philharmonia’s principal clarinet almost made time stand still by playing the solos in such a withdrawn, mysterious fashion. And so to the finale, ‘E. D. U.’. What self-confidence there is in this music; you can sense Elgar saying to himself ‘I can do this!’ There was a fine swagger and great excitement in this performance. And as Elgar swung into his coda, one could appreciate the wisdom of Jaeger’s advice. Tonight, with the cathedral organ adding depth and majesty to the texture, the end of Enigma sounded absolutely splendid.

Under David Hill’s stylish and inspiring direction, the Philharmonia gave a superb account of Elgar’s masterpiece. As the performance unfolded, I felt there was a palpable sense that the orchestra felt liberated and off the leash. After so many months of frustration and worry during the UK’s effective lockdown of the performing arts, here they were again, playing one of the great works of the orchestral repertoire and relishing it to the full. The performance was greeted by the sort of applause one is more accustomed to hearing at the very end of a concert. There is no doubt that the Three Choirs audience felt caught up in a special performance.

Gabriel Jackson’s The World Imagined at the Three Choirs Festival (c) M. Whitefoot

After the interval we heard the world premiere of Gabriel Jackson’s The World Imagined, a work co-commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival. This was a performance to which I had been looking forward with increasing excitement. I have long admired Jackson’s music, especially his choral output, and one of its most compelling features, I’ve found, is his wonderful sense for textures and colours. However, as he confirmed when I interviewed him in advance of the premiere, he has not previously written a choral/orchestral score using such a large orchestra and I was intrigued to hear how the expanded palette would sound.

The score, which played for some 50 minutes tonight, is an anthology work, divided into five parts which play continuously. The following eclectic range of authors furnished the text. Part I sets lines by Samuel Ha-Nagid (993-1056), the Spanish-Jewish scholar. Part II is a poem by the Italian philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Part III consists of a poem by the Estonian poet, Doris Kareva (b.1958), a frequent source of inspiration for this composer. Part IV is the longest section and uses words by three authors: the American, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the Scot, Kenneth White (b.1936), and the early Christian theologian, St Ambrose (c.340-397). Part V is a setting of another American poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Reading through the poems earlier in the day, in preparation for the concert, two things struck me. Firstly, several of the texts are not easy to comprehend without very careful consideration. Secondly, Jackson’s selection of texts seems inspired: no matter that the poems are sometimes ‘difficult’ to understand; the imagery is often rich and pregnant with possibilities. As I hoped would be the case, his music enhances the words and gives them an added dimension.

The World Imagined is scored for tenor soloist, SATB chorus and an orchestra comprising triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion (3 players), harp and strings.

Part I opened the work most promisingly. Samuel Ha-Nagid’s words were sung by the choir to beautifully conceived melodic lines – an extended viola song, heard before the voices entered, had given early notice of the melodic nature of the writing. (I loved the way the violas were ‘accompanied’ only by occasional deep gong sounds.) Another important instrumental solo introduced Part II. This was an extended, sinuous cor anglais solo; the instrument reappeared several times during the movement and the composer suggested in his programme note that it could represent the alter ego of the tenor soloist. It was tenor Nick Pritchard who took centre stage for this setting of Giacomo Leopardi’s poem which begins ‘I have always loved this solitary hill’. Pritchard is no stranger to Gabriel Jackson’s music; I recall his fine contribution to the 2014 premiere of The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (review). Jackson’s setting of Leopardi’s words involved long, rhapsodic lines for the tenor. Chiefly, the music lay in the singer’s upper register and it was constantly ornamented with decoration that imparted a Middle-Eastern flavour to the music. Nick Pritchard’s light, pliant tone was well-suited to the music. The chorus and orchestra featured in a highly effective supporting role but right at the end the last two lines (‘In such immensity my spirit drowns….’) the full-on choral writing had an ecstatic nature that put me in mind of Howells, especially his Missa Sabrinensis (premiered in this very building in 1954).

Part III is the setting of Doris Kareva’s poem. I freely admit that I don’t yet fully understand the poem; as a consequence, on a first hearing I didn’t quite ‘get’ what Gabriel Jackson does with it. That said, the music is very impressive, opening with bursts of brilliant orchestral and choral light. A high point is the treatment of the section ‘On the table is a jug, / next to it a glass, / Whoever drinks from it forgets their name….’ The ladies sing the first part of this episode very simply but then the dark writing for male voices and orchestra makes the warning to ‘Whoever drinks from it’ very imposing.

Part IV opens with the Whitman setting; the words are from his Leaves of Grass (1871). This is another passage of full-on choral and orchestral music which put me in mind of Howells. The music – and the performance – generated great heat and energy, with much of the impetus coming from the strong rhythms in the orchestra. The music struck me as daring and vigorous; the orchestral writing was very inventive. There was an abrupt cut-off before the tenor took the lead in the singing of Kenneth White’s poem, A high blue day on Scalpay, which begins ‘This is the summit of contemplation’. The solo part was impassioned – and strongly projected by Nick Pritchard against an orchestral accompaniment that teemed with life. Wonderfully eloquent from the start, the tenor’s music became even more eloquent and rhapsodic towards the end. The movement concluded with lines from St Ambrose, set as a blazing choral/orchestral paean.

To sum up, Jackson set Wallace Stevens’ poem Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour as Part V. The choral writing is warm and beautifully accompanied by the orchestra. The music is expansive and I love the way the harmonies colour the words, as, for example, at ’A light, a power, the miraculous influence’. The tenor soloist joins the choir and the music acquires even more romantic expressiveness. The last three lines of Stevens’ poem are set with especial beauty and when the singers have finished the orchestra brings The World Imagined to a tranquil conclusion.

Gabriel Jackson was present and was clearly delighted by the enthusiastic reception the audience gave to both work and performance. It was equally evident that he was thrilled by the performance which his score had received – and rightly so. I find it hard to believe that Jackson’s work could have been better served. It must be a special thrill for musicians to bring a work to life for the first time and from several conversations I had with members of the Festival Chorus beforehand it was clear that they were anticipating this performance keenly. That showed through in their singing. They had impressed me very much in Elgar’s Music Makers on the opening night but on this occasion, I felt their performance was on an even higher level. They sang what is clearly demanding music with assurance and total commitment. I also admired the clarity of their diction. It was obvious that they had been prepared assiduously by their three chorus masters, Geraint Bowen, Samuel Hudson and Adrian Partington. The Festival Chorus tonight set the bar high for future performances. The Philharmonia’s playing was superb from start to finish. They showed commitment similar to the choir’s; the rhythms were delivered with razor-sharp acuity and the vast range of colour in Jackson’s score was revealed in all its splendour. In Nick Pritchard we had an ideal soloist. The performance could not have been in better hands than those of David Hill. He visibly energised his performers and it was clear that he was completely in command of the score, shaping and directing it with complete assurance.

When I interviewed him in advance of the performance Gabriel Jackson was very clear that he was conscious of Three Choirs tradition and that, in writing his new piece, he wished to be fully respectful of that tradition. I would say he succeeded triumphantly in that aim without ever being fettered by the tradition. I have alluded to a couple of occasions when the music put me in mind of Howells, for example – I hope I am not way off the mark there. These were the most obvious examples but, overall, I felt that on a first hearing The World Imagined not only sits firmly in that Three Choirs lineage but significantly advances it. I am impatient to hear the work again and I hope that other choirs and festivals will take it up; it is a major addition to the choral/orchestral repertoire.

This was a thrilling concert in so many ways. The Three Choirs Festival at its very best.

John Quinn  

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