United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2022  – Dvořák: Anita Watson (soprano), Catherine Carby (mezzo-soprano), Ruairi Bowen (tenor), Stephan Loges (bass-baritone), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Geraint Bowen (conductor). Hereford Cathedral, 23.7.2022. (JQ)
Dvořák – Requiem, Op.89
Antonín Dvořák scored a major success in England in 1883 when his Stabat Mater op 58 (1877) was performed in London. The following year, the work was heard again, this time in Worcester at the Three Choirs Festival; the composer himself conducted. In 1885 his cantata The Spectre’s Bride, Op.69, was very well received at the Birmingham Triennial Festival, so much so that the Festival sought a new choral/orchestral work from him for their 1891 programme. It was suggested that Dvořák might set Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius but he demurred, leaving the way open for Elgar to use Newman’s text for his masterpiece a few years later. Instead, Dvořák composed his Requiem, which received its first performance in Birmingham in 1891.
Three years later, the work was performed at the 1894 Three Choirs Festival, held that year in Hereford. Until tonight, the Requiem had only been given at one other Festival, the one held in Worcester in 1984. By contrast, the Stabat Mater had five Three Choirs outings between 1898 and 1956, and a more recent performance at the 2014 Festival in Worcester; then, as tonight, Geraint Bowen was on the rostrum (review click here). It may be an indication of the relative rarity with which the Requiem is performed, at least in the UK, that in over fifty years of concert going I have never experienced it live, though I have several recordings of it in my CD collection.
Though it has some powerful moments, Dvořák’s setting of the Requiem does not attempt to rival the fire and theatrical nature of Verdi’s setting or the visionary grandeur of Berlioz. On reflection, it is probably as well that he passed up on the chance to set The Dream of Gerontius: it is hard to imagine how he might have set the Demons’ Chorus, for example.
Largely, Dvořák follows the standard text of the Mass for the Dead though he does interpolate two additional movements: the Gradual prayer ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine’ immediately before the Dies irae; and a setting of the verse ‘Pie Jesu’ which is placed immediately before the Agnus Dei. Even though the work may lack the drama of settings by some other composers, Dvořák’s music is attractive and lyrical. However, there is an elephant in the room: the length of the work. I timed tonight’s performance at 95 minutes, excluding the interval (taken after the Dies irae). The length of the performance had nothing to do with Geraint Bowen’s pacing, which I thought was consistently apposite; rather, the problem lies in the composer’s tendency to repeat himself and to make a little material go quite a long way. The Stabat Mater displays the same fault. If both works – and this applies especially to the Requiem – were some 20 minutes shorter I think the scores in question would benefit and, such is the attractiveness of the music, both works might be more frequently performed. As it was, tonight I found my attention starting to wane somewhat by the time we reached the Sanctus; that is no reflection on the quality of the performance, by the way.
We had a late change of soloist. Matthew Brook had to withdraw and at short notice the Festival secured the services of Stephan Loges. He was an excellent replacement, though he is a bass-baritone whereas Matthew Brook is a genuine bass, and that perhaps explains why on a handful of occasions it seemed to me that the very lowest notes in the part lay a little uncomfortably for him. However, that was a small consideration. What really mattered was the authority and presence that Loges brought to his singing. I liked him very much. The tenor was Ruairi Bowen. I have heard him several times before, both live and on disc, and mostly my experience of him has been in smaller-scale works. As a result, I was unprepared for the strength and ring of his voice, which he projected impressively. Perhaps I should not be surprised; after all, he is the grandson of the distinguished Welsh tenor, Kenneth Bowen. In passing, I wondered if his grandfather ever had opportunities to sing this work. I hope it won’t be considered patronising if I say that I am sure Kenneth Bowen would have strongly approved of his grandson’s performance tonight. He offered the most characterful singing among the soloists and he impressed me strongly.
I am afraid that the female soloists didn’t make such a mark with me. In fairness to Catherine Carby, the alto part is the least interesting of the four solo roles and she sang her music reliably and with evident sincerity; however, I didn’t feel she imposed herself sufficiently. I am sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy the singing of soprano Anita Watson. She put a degree of feeling into her performance. Unfortunately, though, she consistently sang with excessive vibrato, to such an extent that although I am very familiar with the Latin text of the Mass for the Dead, all too often I could not make out what she was singing. The essential clarity of tone and diction that the role requires was entirely missing.
Tonight’s valuable programme note was written by Gwilym Bowen, the brother of Ruairi Bowen and also a very good tenor in his own right. I was amused by one comment he made. He suggested that ‘Dvořák was awed by the sheer size of English festival choirs but perhaps placed less faith in their ability to perform complex counterpoint’. Of course, complex counterpoint is something that the Three Choirs Festival Chorus of today is well equipped to handle, but this Requiem relies mainly on homophonic choral writing. Tonight, the Festival Chorus sang Dvořák’s music impressively. From the start the tone was firm and full and the choir was responsive to the varying dynamic demands of the work. They offered robust singing when required to do so but they were also alive to the need for sensitivity in the more gentle, lyrical passages. On the fairly rare occasions when contrapuntal music came their way – especially the too lengthy fugue that concludes both the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ and ‘Hostias’ sections – they sang with spirit and accuracy. I fancy sterner tests lie ahead in the coming week but this opening performance boded well for the rest of the Festival.
The Philharmonia played well. The score is particularly rich in woodwind writing – as is so often the case with this composer – and here Dvořák enhanced his woodwind section by adding bass clarinet and cor anglais to the usual wind choir; he then gave both instruments lots to do. I noticed that at the end of the performance the woodwind section were the first players to whom Geraint Bowen gave a special bow; he was right to do so.
Geraint Bowen conducted the piece with evident conviction and belief. His careful direction brought out the best in the music and the performers.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to hear Dvořák’s Requiem live at long last – and in such a convincing performance. Whether I shall ever be able to hear it in concert again I am not sure but it deserved its revival. The Three Choirs Festival 2022 was securely launched tonight.