Eclectic and imaginatively conceived Transformations programme at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2022 [4] – Bach (arr. Stravinsky), Finzi, Britten, Poulenc: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Hereford Cathedral 29.7.2022. (JQ)

Adrian Partington conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra © Dale Hodgetts & James O’Driscoll

Bach (arr. Stravinsky) – Canonic Variations on ‘Von Himmel hoch’, BWV769
FinziDies Natalis
Britten – The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Poulenc Stabat Mater

After a side trip to London for one of the BBC Proms, I was back in Hereford for this eclectic and imaginatively conceived programme, entitled ‘Transformations’.

The first piece on the programme certainly fitted in with the title of the programme. Stravinsky made this transcription for chorus and orchestra after Bach’s set of organ variations in 1956. I learned from Richard Bratby’s programme note that he specifically designed his re-imagining of Bach’s music as a companion to his own choral/orchestral piece Canticum Sacrum (1955). Both works, I gather, were intended for performance in the basilica of St Mark in Venice. The instrumentation is unusual: Stravinsky uses violas, double basses, harp and some woodwind and brass. To balance these less than full orchestral forces just a section of the Three Choirs Festival Chorus – the Gloucester contingent, I believe – was on duty to sing verses of the chorale at salient points. The orchestral playing was taut and nimble, not least when the woodwinds mimic the passagework which Bach originally conceived for the organ manuals. There are five variations in all, each one in the form of a canon, and Stravinsky is cunning and imaginative in his use of different orchestral colourings for each one. Overall, it is an intriguing and very respectful re-imagining of Bach’s music. Adrian Partington directed a sprightly performance.

Earlier in the week, we heard George Dyson’s Quo Vadis (review click here). It had been intended that Part I of that work would be premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford in September 1939; sadly, the outbreak of World War II put paid to that plan.  I didn’t know – or had forgotten – until I read Bratby’s valuable programme note that Gerald Finzi had received a commission for a new work to be performed at the same festival. Dies Natalis was completed in 1939 and if this was the work with which Finzi intended to fulfil the commission then it was a nice piece of symmetry that the texts were poems by the Anglican clergyman, Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674), who was born in Hereford. However, I suspect the Hereford link was coincidental because, according to Stephen Banfield’s comprehensive biography of Finzi, he began to set some of the poems as early as the mid-1920s.  Dies Natalis received its first performance as soon as possible after the war, at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival of 1946. I have loved this work for decades but to the best of my recollection, have only once heard it sung by a soprano – a CD performance by Susan Gritton. Otherwise, my experience of the work has been in versions by distinguished British tenors, including the peerless Wilfred Brown. However, it was entirely fitting that Elizabeth Watts should perform it tonight because the work’s premiere, given, I presume, in this very cathedral, was sung by a soprano (Elsie Suddaby) and I think I am right in saying that the first recording was also made by a soprano (Joan Cross).

Elizabeth Watts sings with the Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra © Dale Hodgetts & James O’Driscoll

Watts sang the work from memory and this had the great advantage that there was no score to impede her direct communication with the audience. As we shall see, though, it also had a less pleasing effect. The opening ‘Intrada’ was shaped very persuasively by Partington and the strings of the Philharmonia. In the first of the Traherne settings, ‘Rhapsody’, the soprano conveyed a palpable sense of wonder and rapture in her singing and she communicated very directly with the audience. However, freed from the constraint of holding a score, Watts employed a lot of physical gestures; whilst these emphasised the sincerity of her approach and her engagement with the music, the gestures soon became distracting. That said, there was some very eloquent singing to admire: her performance was compelling. The next section, ‘The Rapture’, was subtitled ‘Danza’ by Finzi; here, the Philharmonia enunciated the acute rhythms most successfully. Here and there, however, I felt the playing was a bit too loud, threatening to overshadow the soloist when she was singing in her lower register. Perhaps in this reverberant acoustic a slightly smaller string ensemble might have been advisable? In this movement, Watts offered vividly dramatic singing, something very different to any tenor I have heard. She invested the music with passion but as the movement unfolded, I began to feel that this passion was more than Finzi – and probably Traherne – intended. At the end of the movement, I scribbled the words ‘operatic scena’ in my notepad; I am not persuaded that this approach was not more than the music could bear.

Happily, a rather calmer approach was in evidence for much of the next movement, ‘Wonder’. Though performing with more restraint, Watts was still able to offer a deeply felt experience; I admired this performance. Her account of the concluding movement, ‘The Salutation’ was very committed. However, physical gestures were once again much in evidence and I found this distracting again. Considering Watts’ performance as a whole, there was a great deal of lovely and strongly committed singing to admire but I felt that she indulged in too much underlining of the text, not least through her gesticulations, rather than allowing Finzi’s very natural, empathetic setting of the words to flow unimpeded. This was a highly individual reading of the score but I longed for the easeful communication of Wilfred Brown. It is only fair to say, though, that mine was clearly a minority view because Elizabeth Watts was given a very enthusiastic reception by the audience.

More years ago than I’m now prepared to admit publicly, I attended a series of summer orchestral weekends for amateur players, held in the Yorkshire market town of Settle. These were directed by the composer and conductor Arthur Butterworth and each year we would tackle some challenging repertoire; the Vaughan Williams Sixth Symphony and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses were among the works we undertook – not in the same year, I hasten to add. One year, Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) was on the menu. I had heard the work more than once before but until that weekend of working on the piece from the inside and trying to surmount its challenges, I hadn’t appreciated just what a compositional tour de force it is. Not only are Britten’s variations masterly in their own right, as music, but also, they are terrifically inventive in the way that they give every instrument a chance to shine. The score began life in connection with a 1945 film, Instruments of the Orchestra, made by the Crown Film Unit; but if that origin suggests worthiness or dullness, Britten’s sparkling set of variations soon dispels any such notions.

We heard a very fine performance from Partington and the Philharmonia. The theme itself was sonorously projected by the full orchestra and then, in turn, by each section – variations before the Variations, if you like. The variations themselves gave each instrumental grouping a chance to shine, starting with piccolo and flutes. Each variation was entertainingly characterised and I liked the adroit way Partington achieved the transitions from one variation to the next. The performance also allowed us to appreciate not only the instrument(s) which were in the spotlight in any one variation but also the inventiveness of the accompaniments to each variation. Highlights included the double basses relishing their moment in the sun and also the trombones and tuba who, in their variation, sounded like portly aldermen in procession, even at the sprightly tempo which was sensibly adopted by the conductor. When the fugue began, I was glad that no concessions were made to the resonance of the acoustic: rightly, the fugue was vivacious, clearly articulated and full of energy. It was crowned by the majestic return, on full brass, of Purcell’s theme; this should be a spine-tingling moment in any performance, and it was certainly the case here. This week, I had so far only heard the Philharmonia in their role as accompanists to singing. It was great to hear them let off the leash and enjoying to the full an orchestral showpiece.

Poulenc composed his setting of the Stabat Mater following the sudden death of a dear friend in 1949. It was premiered two years later. I think it would be fair to say that it is not quite as well-known – or as frequently performed – as his Gloria (1959). However, the Stabat Mater is a wonderful score and, arguably, the deeper creation of the two works.

The main responsibility for conveying the text falls on the chorus – the soprano soloist sings in only three of the work’s twelve sections. The Festival Chorus made a fine showing, paying close attention to Adrian Partington’s detailed and spirited direction. The programme note included Poulenc’s description of his Stabat Mater as ‘an a capella work enshrined within the orchestra’. There is a lot of truth in that observation: the score contains several unaccompanied passages for the choir and several more in which the accompaniment is sparse. The Festival Chorus negotiated these sections – and Poulenc’s tricky chromatic harmonies – very successfully. They also sang incisively in the several vehement episodes. This was very well-disciplined singing, with no trace of fluffiness. The orchestra made an expert contribution, enabling us to savour Poulenc’s piquant scoring. I enjoyed Elizabeth Watts’ solos very much. Interestingly, she sang this time from a score and as a result we were able to focus solely on her singing. Her contributions were ravishing. In ‘Vidit suum’ she invested Poulenc’s long, sorrowful vocal lines with great feeling. Later, in the grief-stricken ‘Fac ut portem’ she judged to perfection the intensity required. In the final movement, ‘Quando corpus’ all the performers came together for a highly focussed and moving conclusion to this very personal work.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater contains a great deal of very fine music. If it has a flaw, that lies in the number of very short sections into which the score is divided. In his understandable anxiety to set the short stanzas of this lengthy poem to music that best fitted the text, Poulenc wrote in admirably concise and often highly contrasted sections. Whilst he was certainly right to match words to music, the score can seem somewhat ‘bitty’: there are 12 sections in a work that lasted tonight for about 35 minutes; by contrast, the Gloria, which plays for about 23 minutes, is divided into only six sections. However, in a good performance – and this certainly was a good performance – the vividness of the music compels the listener’s attention. Opportunities to hear Poulenc’s Stabat Mater don’t come along very often so I was delighted to encounter it in such a fine reading which, very rightly, was warmly received by the audience.

Tonight’s conductor, Adrian Partington will be the Artistic Director in 2023 when the Three Choirs moves, by rotation, to Gloucester. The knock-on effects of the pandemic and, specifically, the decision to hold the 2021 Festival in Worcester to compensate that city for the enforced wholesale cancellation in 2020, means that the Festival’s planning cycle has slipped a bit. It had been intended that Gloucester would celebrate in 2022 the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vaughan Williams. Instead, those plans have moved back to 2023 when the Three Choirs Festival intends to offer a gratifyingly large helping of VW’s music. There will also be plenty for lovers of Elgar’s music to enjoy, as well as a very good representation of recent and new music. It is also planned to undertake a number of exciting initiatives to broaden awareness of and involvement in the Festival. That is absolutely essential in order to continue the development and evolution of the Three Choirs Festival in the twenty-first century. The 2023 Festival will take place between 22 and 29 July. Full details will be available early next year at the Three Choirs Festival website (click here).

John Quinn

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