Persuasive advocacy for unfamiliar English music at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [6] – Ireland, Howells, Gibbs: Guy Johnston (cello), Ruby Hughes (soprano), Njabulo Madlala (baritone), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Samuel Hudson, Adrian Partington (conductors). Worcester Cathedral 31.7.2021. (JQ)

Guy Johnston (cello) (c) M. Whitefoot

IrelandThe Forgotten Rite
Howells – Cello Concerto (completed by Jonathan Clinch)
Armstrong Gibbs – Symphony No.2 ‘Odysseus’, Op.90

This fascinating programme of English music brought us a welcome opportunity to experience music that is far from familiar in the concert hall. Indeed, to adapt the title of the opening piece, this concert might be termed a Rite of the Forgotten. That certainly applies, I think, to the works by Howells and Gibbs. The former was put to one side in an unfinished state by Howells and only completed after his death. As for the Gibbs, it quickly faded into obscurity after its first performance in 1946. A CD recording of ‘Odysseus’ was made a few years ago but I doubt it has been heard in public very often.

Samuel Hudson was on the rostrum for the first half of the concert which began with John Ireland’s short orchestral work, The Forgotten Rite. Ireland was inspired by the writings of the Welsh author Arthur Llewellyn Jones (1863-1947). Under the pseudonym Arthur Machen he wrote extensively about mythical British pre-history. The Forgotten Rite depicts an imagined pagan ceremony from ancient times. In his very interesting programme note Gwilym Bowen described the work as ‘a brief marvel’ and detected evidence of Strauss and Debussy in the music. It is a piece that relies principally on misty atmosphere to make its effect. Hudson obtained highly sensitive playing from the Philharmonia which conjured up a distant, hazy vision of ancient times. The one loud passage for full orchestra glowed impressively before the music lapsed back to conclude in the hushed vein of the opening. Though Ireland’s musical vision is, by design, subdued, this was an impressive beginning to the concert.

The Howells concerto had a tragically fascinating genesis and we can count ourselves lucky to have it today.  Howells began it in 1933 but his work on the score was interrupted by the tragic early death of his son, Michael in 1935. Howells dealt with his grief by immersing himself in composition. As is well known, his great masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi was written in the aftermath of Michael’s death but what is less well known is that the concerto was also a partial product of this period. Unlike Hymnus Paradisi, the concerto lay incomplete throughout Howells’ lifetime.

I attended the first public performance of the concerto in 2016. That was given in Gloucester Cathedral by tonight’s soloist, Guy Johnston (review). I learned then a great deal about the background from a detailed programme note by Jonathan Clinch. He related that the first movement was completed and formed part of Howells’ DMus submission to Oxford University in 1937. The previous year he had completed the second movement in short score but he did not orchestrate it; instead, he sketched the finale. Movingly, it appears that Howells did some work on the concerto every year around the anniversary of Michael’s death. Clinch referred to this as ‘a sort of mourning ritual’. However, little significant progress was made, it seems. In 1992, nine years after Howells’ death, Christopher Palmer discovered the manuscript and orchestrated the second movement. That meant that the first movement, Fantasia and the second movement Threnody were in the public domain. There the story rested until 2010 when Clinch examined the sketches for the finale. In tonight’s programme note he modestly underplayed his work on the sketches but I have read elsewhere that he had to re-order the sketches in a logical way, edit the material and then orchestrate it. Along the way he also did a judicious amount of filling out the harmonies where Howells had left little beyond basic melodic lines. Thanks to his work, by 2014 it was possible for cellist Alice Neary to make the first recording of the now-completed Howells Cello Concerto (Dutton Epoch CDLX 7317). Since then, Johnston has made his own very fine recording of the work (review).

The concerto is in three movements which played for about 37 minutes. The opening ‘Fantasia’ is roughly as long as the other two movements combined. Loosely, it follows an ABAB structure, with slowly paced episodes alternating with quicker music. It opens with a melancholy rumination for cello and orchestra. Johnston played this really well, his tone lovely. The sound of his instrument carried easily to where I was seated, about two-thirds of the way down the nave. Howells exploits the cello’s cantabile capabilities very well, writing long melodic lines for it. When the music became much livelier, Johnston was kept very busy but even then he didn’t miss opportunities for cantabile playing. There’s a second episode of slow, reflective music before the vigorous material returns with virtuoso writing for both soloist and orchestra as the movement ends. The movement is very interesting but, despite the skills of soloist, conductor and orchestra, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it is rather too long; some judicious pruning would have worked wonders.

Howells completed the second movement, ‘Threnody’ in the summer of 1936, though he never took it beyond short score. It was from this short score that Palmer orchestrated the movement, using the same forces as Howells had deployed in the ‘Fantasia’. Clinch has aptly described the ‘Threnody’ as a ‘song without words’ for the cello. Melancholy pervades and the tempo marking, Lento calmato – Assai teneramente, really tells you what to expect. The gift for lyrical playing which Johnston had demonstrated in the first movement was now even more to the fore. The full orchestra is deployed just once, for the fairly brief, passionate climax; otherwise, the scoring is light, complementing beautifully the cello’s song. I would say Palmer did a great job in bringing Howells’ music fully to life. Johnston and the Philharmonia brought out the autumnal beauty in the music in a fine performance

The finale, marked Allegro vigoroso, stands in contrast to the two preceding movements in that for the most part it’s an energetic, strongly rhythmic piece which gives the soloist ample opportunities for display in passagework. In his programme note Clinch suggested that the music may call Walton to mind. Tonight’s performance, with the Philharmonia on incisive form, really brought out the Waltonian rhythmic bite in the quick passages of music. However, the episode which most puts me in mind of Walton is the extended passage of slow, haunting music that occurs in mid-movement; this episode was tenderly delivered in this performance. After this the Allegro vigoroso reappeared and the concerto ended in a burst of energy.

Howells’ Cello Concerto, like that of Finzi, will probably always be overshadowed by Elgar’s concerto. That, I suppose, is understandable given the place in the public’s affections that Elgar’s work has come to occupy. Also, though I am more familiar with the Finzi and, of course, the Elgar, I don’t yet find Howells’ melodic material quite as memorable. My guest, an experienced musician who had not previously heard the work, commented afterwards that she found it hard to get a sense of key during each of the movements. Thinking about it, I believe that’s a fair assessment; the harmonic language is constantly unsettled. Nonetheless, the Howells is a considerable piece and we are greatly indebted to the late Palmer and to Clinch, whose discerning and highly successful work has enabled us to enjoy this concerto to the full. It was fitting that at the end Johnston brought Dr Clinch onto the platform to share in the applause. This evening Johnston again showed his command of this work and Hudson, a highly considerate accompanist, and the splendid Philharmonia supported him wonderfully.

The two halves of this concert were originally conceived as part of separate concert programmes until the necessary reshaping of the Festival programme brought them together. That was why, unusually, we had a change of conductor after the interval with Adrian Partington taking charge for the second half.

Armstrong Gibbs’ ‘Odysseus’ symphony at Worcester Cathedral (c) M. Whitefoot

Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) wrote his ‘Odysseus’ symphony in 1937-38. It is the second of his three symphonies: the other two, both purely orchestral and rather shorter than the Second, I understand, were composed in 1931-32 and 1943-44. I learned from Lewis Foreman’s booklet essay which accompanied the CD recording of ‘Odysseus’ that it was scheduled for a first performance in 1939 but the outbreak of war put an end to that and the work was not heard until 1946. How often it has been performed since then I do not know – rarely, I suspect. Mr Foreman said that Gibbs’ choral works, of which there were quite a few, were very popular with choral societies in the interwar years. However, after World War II his music went right out of fashion. I have to admit that until the recording of ‘Odysseus’ was issued in 2008, I knew very little of his music except for a number of his songs, some of which are very good. I bought the recording out of curiosity (Dutton Epoch CDLX7201) but, truth to tell, I hadn’t listened to it for a long time, which may in itself say something. However, I have listened to it two or three times recently in preparation for this performance.

The work, which is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus and a large orchestra, has four movements, in each of which an episode from the adventures of Odysseus is related. In the first movement, ‘Rescue from Calypso’ the goddess Athene persuades Zeus to order the nymph Calypso to release Odysseus, who she has held captive for seven years.  Odysseus sails away and eventually reaches land despite the efforts of Poseidon to kill him by whipping up a sea storm. In the second movement ‘Circe’, our hero has fetched up on the island of Aeaea where the enchantress Circe holds sway. The third movement, ‘Cyclops’ depicts the blinding of the one-eyed monster after he has imbibed wine far too freely. In the final movement, ‘The Return’ Odysseus finally makes it home to where his wife, Penelope is faithfully waiting and they are reunited.

Before this performance I had some reservations about the work. Gibbs is not well served, I believe, by his librettist. Mordaunt Currie (1894-1978). Currie, a baronet living in reduced circumstances, who had furnished texts for Gibbs on several previous occasions, was a friend and neighbour of the composer. Lewis Foreman describes hm as ‘a minor Georgian poet’. I am not entirely sure if Currie wrote this text to order – I suspect he did – but, frankly, I find the results pretty dreadful. Currie’s language is too flowery and stilted and often doesn’t tell the story clearly enough: frequently we have to read between the lines. The libretto is a handicap, then, but in addition I was unconvinced that Gibbs had the compositional range to meet the ambition of this large. Would these reservations be confirmed when I heard the work in live performance?

Tonight’s performance almost persuaded me, thanks to the terrific singing of the Festival Chorus, the splendour of the Philharmonia’s playing and the way that Adrian Partington led the music-making. Gibbs orchestrated ‘Odysseus’ very skilfully and with no little flair. The Philharmonia brought out all the colour in the score. Often their playing was incisive and exciting, but I also admired the sensitivity which they brought to the more delicate passages. Both orchestra and choir brought Gibbs’ music more vividly to live than is the case on the studio-made recording. Indeed, the very opening of the work inspired confidence, the orchestral introduction suitably weighty and the choral singing full-throated and committed. The storm which Poseidon conjures up was powerfully depicted by singers and players while the celebrations when Odysseus reaches land safely brough the first movement to a big and positive conclusion.

The second movement, much of which is mysterious in tone, contains much of the best music in the work. The choral writing is interesting, especially in terms of the harmonies, and the often-subdued orchestration is effective. All of this came over very well tonight. The third movement is set almost exclusively for the male voices of the choir, with a couple of intervening baritone solos. It demands energised and precise singing from the tenors and basses and that’s exactly what we got from the gentlemen of the Festival Chorus. Adrian Partington secured an animated performance and paced the music adroitly so that excellent momentum and spirit were achieved while the choir had the opportunity to articulate their words very clearly. In mid-movement, as Cyclops imbibes rather too freely, here’s some amusing writing for the chorus. This was crisply delivered, with not a ‘hic’ out of place – no easy matter when you’re tipsy! The passage in which Cyclops in blinded was invested with suitable drama. Chapeau to the gentlemen of the Festival Chorus!

While the gentlemen briefly slept off their third movement party, at the start of ‘The Return’ the sopranos and altos saluted the patience of Penelope; her patrician nature is well suggested in Gibbs’ music. An SATB passage, strongly sung tonight, then relates the vain attempts of Penelope’s suitors to win her in her husband’s absence – hereabouts Currie’s words are execrable, clouding the narrative – before the soloists, as the reunited pair, sing a joyful duet of reunion and of thanks to Athene. The work ends in a paean of joy in which soloists, chorus and orchestra give it all they’ve got. Lewis Foreman observed of this ‘they don’t write ‘em like that anymore’ and the triumphant conclusion certainly vindicated that judgement.

Unfortunately, I have to say that there were two significant weaknesses in this performance: both soloists were a significant disappointment and seemed to me to have been miscast. Ruby Hughes certainly displayed engagement with the music but I am afraid I found her habit of waving her arms around very distracting: I longed for her just to stand still and sing. I didn’t feel her voice was right for the part, either. She lacked the amplitude of tone and warmth that one hears from Susan Gritton on the CD. Perhaps because she was conscious of the need to project into a large, resonant space I felt that the line often suffered, as did her diction. Opposite her, the South African baritone Njabulo Madlala had a big, rich voice. However, his words were very indistinct and, more seriously, I was far from confident that the notes were being hit truly. In fairness, Gibbs’ solo writing is not particularly appealing in this piece, which is surprising given his skill as a song writer, but even so I don’t think tonight’s soloists did his music justice.

On the other hand, the Festival Chorus, the Philharmonia and Adrian Partington made the best possible case for ‘Odysseus’. Despite their skill and wholehearted commitment, I remain less than fully convinced about the work – it’s very much a mixed bag – but I am glad to have heard a live performance of it. I rather doubt it can ever have been so well served.

This was the final appearance at this year’s Festival of both the Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The members of the Festival Chorus had to conduct most of their rehearsals under the regime of social distancing. In addition, it was only a matter of days before the start of the Festival that they knew that they would actually be allowed to sing; Covid restrictions could have dictated that all their hard work had been in vain. Thankfully, that was not the case and in all three of their concerts they have sung marvellously, displaying musicianship, thorough preparation and, above all, commitment. As for the members of the Philharmonia, they too were uncertain whether they would be performing the advertised music or whether the alternative programmes sans choir would be brought into effect. But that’s a small matter compared to the stress and worry that they, along with so many fellow professional musicians, have had to endure since March 2020. Their very livelihoods have been imperilled and it must have been a huge challenge to maintain corporate morale and standards. Against that troubled background their participation in this year’s Festival must have been more welcome than ever. They have played splendidly throughout, with their performance of the Enigma Variations a notable highlight (review).

Just putting on the Festival this year has been a significant achievement and it is hard to imagine how much work must have gone on behind the scenes to make it happen at all. It seems to me that the 2021 Three Choirs Festival has been a great success. All the concerts I have attended have been artistically excellent and I have heard or read very good reports of a number of other events that I couldn’t attend. Not only has the artistic standard been as high as ever – no signs of rustiness – but the musicians’ delight and relief at being able to perform to live audiences has been palpable. The concerts have been well attended and although audience members were asked to wear masks, mostly there has been a sense of Business as Usual. It’s been a delight to experience live music-making again and I think the Three Choirs Festival can feel especially proud that they have restored live choral concerts. By putting on large scale concerts in front of audiences much has been done to restore what the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson has recently referred to as ‘the democracy of music’.

Let us hope that the 2022 Festival will suffer none of the uncertainties of 2022. Hereford will be the host city and Artistic Director Geraint Bowen has unveiled the highlights of the planned programme. It is an attractive mix of the familiar and the less well known. So, for instance, while the Festival will end with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, it will open with a work that is not so often heard live in the UK these days, the Requiem by Dvořák. Two settings of the Stabat Mater will be performed, by Poulenc and Richard Blackford. Following Hereford’s highly successful 2012 revival of Sir George Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims, (review), 2022 will see an even more ambitious Dyson work revived: Quo Vadis. There will be the UK premiere of a work by Rolf Martinsson and the first performance of a piece by Luke Styles, commissioned for the Festival Youth Chorus. The Festival will run from 23 July to 30 July and more details will be available next Spring at the Three Choirs Festival website.

John Quinn     

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