United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival  – Haydn, The Creation: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Neal Davies (bass), Gabrieli Roar, Gabrieli Consort and Players / Paul McCreesh (conductor). Worcester Cathedral 1.8.2021. (JQ)
On the Monday of Festival week, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players, aided and abetted by a strong team of soloists, gave a performance of Purcell’s King Arthur. I didn’t revew that concert – I am insufficiently versed in Purcell’s music to do so – but I have heard very good things about it. To close the Festival, McCreesh and Gabrieli returned to Worcester but this time they came with their youth choir, Gabrieli Roar, for a Haydn concert which had been given the title ‘Re-Creation’.
I first encountered the phenomenon that is Gabrieli Roar through their exceptional multi-award-winning recording, An English Coronation (review). The participation of young singers was the raison d’être of tonight’s performance and I thought it would be important to learn a bit more about Gabrieli Roar and, specifically, about the ‘Re-Creation’ project. So, despite his hectic schedule, I managed to have a conversation with Paul McCreesh in the days preceding this concert.
Essentially, how Gabrieli Roar works is that Gabrieli forms links with established youth choirs around the country. The singers then learn the music with their own choir leaders and come together, as the climax of a project, to polish everything up for a performance. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Roar has not been able to mount any events since An English Coronation: a planned Dream of Gerontius in summer 2020 fell victim to the pandemic. When I spoke to Paul McCreesh, his concern about the damage done by lockdowns to education in general and to music education in particular was crystal clear, as was his passion for developing young singers. He expressed great concern about a ‘developing national crisis’. There has been very little youth choral work going on over the last 18 months due to Covid and there’s bound to be a skills loss. The ‘Re-Creation’ project has been designed as a ‘choral re-boot’ and this Worcester event is the first of five which are planned to take place over the next few months. Tonight some 100 young singers were involved, drawn from youth choirs in London (the Tiffin Choir) and from the Three Choirs counties plus Shropshire. By the time the final ‘Re-Creation’ concert is given it is hoped that over 1000 young singers will have been involved.
Though the pandemic shut-down of choral activity has been highly damaging, I learned that it has had one positive for Gabrieli Roar. Prior to the original lockdown between 12 and 14 youth choirs were involved. Behind the scenes work during lockdown has expanded the involvement to about 30 choirs. Up to now, Gabrieli Roar has been aimed principally at singers aged between 14 and 18. However, McCreesh explained to me that he’s acutely conscious of the dearth of singing opportunities in many UK secondary schools; consequently, in future children as young as 11 who can cope musically will be encouraged to join. He told me of his determination to expand Roar and I understand that there’s a very ambitious 5-year business plan from 2022 though, as ever, money is the key. The aim is to embed a love of culture among as wide a group of young people as possible in the hope that in years to come these children will become not only adult singers themselves but also the good music teachers and sympathetic parents that future generations of young singers will need to support them.
That’s some vision. I was eager to hear the fruits of it in action tonight. The choice of Haydn’s much-loved oratorio was deliberate. As McCreesh put it, Creation demonstrates that Haydn ‘looks at the world with a child’s joy’. He’s a profoundly serious composer but also one who can almost always put a smile on the face of the world. Practical considerations were important too; the work has some superb choruses but much of the musical ‘heavy lifting’ is done by the soloists, an important consideration when chorus rehearsal time is limited, as was the case here. It was also a highly appropriate choice to bring to Three Choirs: I had learned from a social media post by Simon Carpenter, who has researched these matters, that the first Three Choirs performance of Creation was given as long ago as 1800; that was only the third performance in England and came just two years after the work’s premiere in Vienna.
This performance was given using Paul McCreesh’s English version. That was used for his terrific 2006 recording (review) and I think it works very well. One of tonight’s soloists took part in that recording: Neal Davies sang Raphael. On this occasion he also sang as Adam and he was joined by Robert Murray and by Carolyn Sampson, who took the place of Mary Bevan who had been obliged to withdraw.
The solo team was exceptionally strong. Neal Davies gave early notice of his ability to bring words and music to life; he brought mystery and a proper sense of awe to his opening recitative ‘In the beginning…’ Later, he was splendidly descriptive in narrating the creation of animal life (’Straight opening her fertile womb’) and brought genuine grandeur to the following aria (‘Now heaven in fullest glory shines’). I thought he was marginally better suited to the role of Raphael than to Adam in Part III. I like to hear a more suave voice as Adam, but that’s a subjective view. Davies was more of a forthright partner for Eve but he nonetheless proved an admirable foil for Carolyn Sampson in their extended duetting.
Robert Murray was highly persuasive as Uriel. Like his two colleagues, his diction was crystal clear. He encompassed all the facets of the role. ‘And God saw the light’ was a clarion call and the aria that followed showed clear, ringing tone and vocal agility. Much later, Murray brought all the poetry one could desire to ‘In rosy mantle’. I enjoyed all aspects of his singing.
Invidious though it may be to single out one soloist among an excellent trio, Carolyn Sampson was simply wonderful. It was evident, not only from her radiant singing but also from her facial expressions that she was enjoying every minute – and not just when she was singing. In ‘With verdure clad’ her voice was as clear as a bell and the delivery was charming – I loved the decorations with which she embellished the line. ‘On mighty pens’ is quite a long aria – sometimes I wish Haydn hadn’t been quite so generous in his writing. Not on this occasion. Had I been listening on CD I would have been tempted to hit the replay button, so engaging was the singing. In live performance, though, one could see as well as hear the delight with which Ms Sampson delivered the aria. In Part III she was a winning companion to Adam.
The solo numbers offered countless opportunities to savour Haydn’s colourful and highly inventive orchestration. The Gabrieli Players relished their task and brought Haydn’s scoring vividly to life, whether in the low blasts on trombones and bassoons as the ‘heavy beasts’ tread the earth, or in the wonderful pastel delicacy of the opening to Part III and the accompaniment to ‘In rosy mantle’. The woodwind contributions were a continual source of delight, crowned by marvellously evocative flute playing during ‘On mighty pens’. The timbres of period instruments bring out the colours of Haydn’s scoring in a unique way and this performance was a wonderful demonstration of how it is done.
Creation contains a string of superb choruses and even with the support of members of the Gabrieli Consort, this was a stiff test for the young singers of Gabrieli Roar. It was a test which they passed with flying colours. As one would expect, the young voices don’t yet have the tonal weight of adults – though the tenors and basses of the Gabrieli Consort compensated for that. Anyway, any lack of tonal weight mattered not. Of much greater importance was the freshness and the engagement which the young singers brought to Haydn’s music. Furthermore, they were disciplined and thoroughly on top of the music so that the contrapuntal writing in choruses such as ‘Awake the harp’ came off really well. The great chorus that closes Part II (‘Achieved is the glorious work’) blazed with excitement and conviction and the final chorus brought the oratorio to a resounding and thrilling conclusion. I admired greatly the achievement of Gabrieli Roar, which was especially impressive when one remembers that they had only been able to come together as a choir for a full-day rehearsal the previous day. Best of all, their undoubted commitment never caused them to over-sing. Their collective name may be ‘Roar’ but there was no over-exuberant roaring in this performance; instead, what we heard was joyful and highly engaged singing. Bravo!
Paul McCreesh conducted the performance with huge enthusiasm. He conducted from memory and brought out every nuance, every delight in Haydn’s score. Right from the start, the way that he moulded all the details in the Representation of Chaos showed that this was going to be a special performance. Throughout the evening he animated and encouraged everyone in a performance that brought out all the wit, nobility and sheer humanity of Haydn’s wonderful score. It has been a long time since I enjoyed a concert as much as this exuberant, joyful performance of Creation.
This was a wonderful evening and a splendid way to ring down the curtain on the 2021 Three Choirs Festival. I do hope that the young singers involved enjoyed and were excited by the opportunity: all the indications are that this was the case. They have their activities in their own choirs to look forward to but it would be good to think that some of them will have been stimulated to join the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir in the next couple of years. Perhaps it’s not too fanciful to believe that in the future some of the singers we heard tonight will be part of the Three Choirs Festival Chorus itself. Coming away from Worcester Cathedral this evening I felt that the vision of Gabrieli Roar had been amply vindicated. The terrific singing of those young singers brought to mind Elgar’s comment about the end of his First symphony. In the work which Paul McCreesh and his colleagues are doing we can surely see a ‘massive hope for the future’
There are to be further performances of ‘Re-Creation’ at the following venues: Romsey Abbey, 23 October; York Minster, 6 November; Ely Cathedral, 13 November; Durham Cathedral, date tbc. If you live in the vicinity of any of these places it will be well worth attending the concerts. There’s more information about the concerts and about the whole Gabrieli Roar project on their website.