A gripping, inspiring Three Choirs Festival performance of a major work by Francis Pott

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2023 [5] – Svane, Bax, Holst, Pott: April Fredrick (soprano), Clare Presland (mezzo-soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 25.7.2023. (JQ)

April Fredrick, Clare Presland and Marcus Farnsworth © James O’Driscoll

Randall Svane Quantum Flight (UK premiere)
Holst Ode to Death
Francis PottA Song on the End of the World

This varied and challenging programme began with the UK premiere of Quantum Flight, a short orchestral work by the American composer, Randall Svane (b.1955). I don’t recall that I have previously heard any of Svane’s music but I understand that he was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and for the past thirty years he has pursed a career as a composer, organist, conductor and teacher. In his programme note the composer explained that the title of his piece derives from quantum mechanics. He went on to outline briefly the scientific background. I won’t attempt to paraphrase his comments since my scientific knowledge is so limited that I am sure I would miss out a crucial point or two! Suffice to say that Quantum Flight is a fast, bright and brilliant piece which overflows with energy. There is a passage partway through where the pace slackens a little, allowing for more lyrical expression but even here I felt that momentum is maintained. I enjoyed this music and the incisive performance it received. It made a strong concert opener.

Holst’s Ode to Death came as a complete contrast to the Svane. It was composed in 1919 as a memorial to friends and colleagues who Holst had lost in the war, and specifically the composer Cecil Coles (1888-1918). The piece is a setting of an extract from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. As Richard Bratby justly observed in his programme note, the atmosphere of the piece is ‘outwardly serene and consoling’ but there are tensions and strong emotions below the surface. In that respect, I think we can draw a parallel with the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (1922) of Holst’s great friend, Vaughan Williams. I don’t know why we don’t hear Ode to Death more often; it contains music of great beauty and no little eloquence. I thought the performance we heard was a fine one. The Festival Chorus sang the music very well indeed, with evident attention to detail, not least in the matter of dynamic contrasts. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s playing was sensitive. It was only when I came to look back on the concert as a whole that I came to appreciate fully the subtlety of Adrian Partington’s programme planning: the Holst, with its music that often resembles the aural equivalent of an alabaster memorial, offered a strong but very apt contrast with the searing emotions expressed so vividly by Francis Pott in A Song on the End of the World.

The first half closed with Arnold Bax’s Tintagel. I love much of Bax’s orchestral output, including the brazen romanticism of his seven symphonies, but this tone poem is my favourite among his works. The piece was inspired by the majestic ruins of Tintagel Castle in Cornwall which perch on the edge of the cliffs against which the waves of the Atlantic Ocean ceaselessly break. Though the historical and mythological aspects of the castle will have appealed to Bax, Richard Bratby outlined in the programme note the extent to which the castle was associated with the burgeoning affair between the composer and Harriet Cohen. The music is imaginative and very colourful. Partington and the RPO painted a vivid musical picture for us. The majestic writing for brass, which depicts the castle’s historic purpose, made a splendid effect; the tempo at which this music was unfolded struck me as ideally chosen for the cathedral acoustic. Later on, as Bax illustrates the eddying Atlantic waters through impulsive, active music, I was impressed by the amount of inner detail that emerged; that is no mean feat in such a resonant building. This was a splendid performance in which Bax’s colourful, inventive music was brought vividly to life.

In the last 15 years or so, I have heard and admired quite a lot of music by Francis Pott. I have heard a number of short pieces but, in particular, my attention has been grabbed – I use the word advisedly – by two works on a very large scale. One of these is The Cloud of Unknowing (2006) for solo tenor, choir and organ (review); the other is the vast five-movement symphony for organ, Christus (review). The latter, composed between 1986 and 1990, is on a truly epic scale; each of the three recordings I have heard lasts for over two hours with the first and last movements each taking over half an hour to play. A Song on the End of the World is not of quite the same dimensions in terms of duration but, based on this single hearing, I would say it is no less ambitious in scale and scope. I hope I will be forgiven if from now on I follow the composer’s example and abbreviate the work’s title; I will refer to it as A Song.

Pott composed the work between 1998 and April 1999. It was commissioned for the 1999 Three Choirs Festival, held that year in Worcester; it was in Worcester Cathedral that Adrian Lucas conducted the world premiere performance. Incidentally, I was amazed to learn from the richly detailed History of the Three Choirs Festival by Anthony Boden and Paul Hedley that in that 1999 concert not only did the Festival Chorus sing Pott’s hugely demanding score but also the wonderful but challenging Stabat Mater by Karol Szymanowski; what a night that must have been! The work is cast in seven movements and in tonight’s performance it played for 70 minutes.

This was, I believe, only the second performance that the work has received and I mean no disrespect whatsoever either to composer or work when I say that it is not hard to see why. The work is extremely challenging, not least for the chorus, and I doubt that many choirs – or their choirmasters – would be prepared to take on the daunting task of preparing it for a single performance. That Adrian Partington, Geraint Bowen and Samuel Hudson should have done so reflects huge credit on them and on the members of the Festival Chorus. In recent weeks I have spoken to some members of the Festival Chorus and they have all commented on the amount of work that has been required to learn this difficult score. I mention that simply as a way of emphasising the scale of the achievement of the singers and their choirmasters in mastering the music to the extent that was evident tonight.

As was the case with The Cloud of Unknowing, Francis Pott assembled his own libretto from a variety of sources. In my review of the recording of that work I said ‘It would be unduly simplistic to describe The Cloud of Unknowing as an anti-war piece. However, it treats of and protests against man’s inhumanity to man, which is often manifested through warfare.’ I think the same could be said of A Song.

The composer provided a very good introduction to the work in the programme; readers who wish to understand more about the piece can also find that introduction on his website. However, I would like to go back to what he said in 1999 when the work was premiered: his comments are included in the aforementioned history of the Three Choirs Festival. Apparently, the work had its origins quite some years before as a Requiem, mixing poetic texts with the Mass for the Dead. However, the scheme changed over time and only the Agnus Dei and Recordare found a place in A Song. Pott’s 1999 programme note explained: ‘Our pre-Millennial media, however, present us daily with inextricably linked images of communal mourning and the incitement to ethnic vengeance (drowning the pleas for peace of those who have not so suffered). Inasmuch as A Song on the End of the World both embodies these and presumes by its choice of texts to articulate a renewed protest against the horrors of our age, it remains a Requiem of sorts.’ One other important point should be noted, this time from the composer’s latest essay about the work. He writes that A Song ‘chooses to see Christ as mapping onto that other mysteriously timeless figure, Everyman, and the Crucifixion as recurrently present within each human atrocity or random individual extinction in the field of war’. That is highly relevant in view of some of the Crucifixion-related imagery we shall encounter in Pott’s libretto

I mean it as a compliment when I say that, prior to this evening, I have only rarely felt confronted by the live performance of a piece of music and the philosophy behind it; James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross is the only other example that springs readily to mind. Pott’s music is often unflinching and is clearly the expression of deeply held convictions. To achieve his effects, Pott has scored the work for a very large orchestra. The orchestral writing is frequently loud and graphic. However, I thought it was one of the achievements of this performance that conductor and players ensured that the singers were not engulfed by the sound.

The first section, ‘In the First Darkness’ sets words by George Mackay Brown. Here, the chorus and the baritone soloist are involved. The music is ominous and generates great tension. The choir’s music is highly chromatic and I admired the clarity with which the chorus parts emerged. The second movement, ‘Nativity’, involves mainly the two female soloists singing various anonymous Medieval texts, though later in the section the chorus adds a setting of some words by William Blake. The words sung by the soloists refer to the infancy of Christ but contrast this with premonitions of how he will suffer and die. From an opening soprano solo which is fairly simple in expression, the music incrementally acquires much greater intensity.

The third movement is ‘On the Day the World Ends’. This was the first part of the work to be written. It is a setting of an English translation of a poem by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004). I understand that Milosz wrote this poem in Nazi-occupied Warsaw in 1944. Given the title of the poem, it may be surprising that the text is so innocent; the essential idea behind the poem is that because they ‘do not know the time and the place’ people will continue their everyday, not to say mundane, lives until the world ends. Pott matches the sentiment of the poem with delicate orchestral writing – there is some very attractive woodwind material – though in the third stanza the colourings become more ominous. The movement is a soprano solo and April Fredrick sang it beautifully, with a fine degree of expressiveness.

By way of a dramatic short orchestral passage, we move attacca into the fourth movement, ‘War’. Here, the chorus sings intense, biting music to which are set lines by the British poet, Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). As the choir sings, the three soloists are given verses from Psalm 22: it is surely no accident that in the Christian liturgies, this psalm is associated with Good Friday. All this music is urgent, both in tempo and nature. When the choir reach the lines beginning ‘He is risen, he is risen…’ there is no Resurrection joy; instead, the music is graphic and one gets the sense of Christ bursting the rocks to exit the tomb. Hereabouts, the music is fearsome and dramatic and I sensed that the Festival Chorus were straining every sinew to put it across. In these pages the orchestral sound is thunderous, but even above the tumult the choir’s music came over clearly. It is left to the baritone to sing the last couple of stanzas of Rosenberg’s poem. The vocal line is full of tension. So far as I could tell, Marcus Farnsworth, who sang marvellously, was largely accompanied by woodwind and brass instruments, mainly in their lower registers. The scoring gave a dark, scary character to this bitter music.

Without a break, hushed strings lead into the fifth movement, their music – and playing – full of suppressed tension. The movement is entitled ‘Gethsemane’. The soprano soloist sings words by Thomas Merton (1915-1968), while the choir’s text, which accompanies the soloist, is from Psalms 130 and 139. April Fredrick sang Merton’s words, set to very slow music, with fragile beauty. Gradually, her singing – and the music – became more impassioned. I don’t know if this is what the composer sought to portray, but as I listened to this tragic music, performed with sensitivity and eloquence, I had a strong sense of the world in ruins; we were hearing the aural equivalent of a barren landscape. This is an amazingly eloquent movement.

Movement six is entitled ‘Nocturne’ but any idea that this might be quiet, peaceful night music is wide of the mark. It’s the longest movement in the work, I think, and, at a first hearing, the hardest to grasp. First, the baritone sings fragments from three poems by the American Randall Jarrell (1914-1965). As Pott says in his notes, these extracts depict Second World War bombing missions over Europe. The music is graphic and pulls no punches. Incidentally, in this section, we hear, in the composer’s words, ‘possibly the only known example of a composer mimicking the Doppler effect of aircraft passing overhead’. I think this is achieved by the trombones and it is certainly realistic. Then the soprano and chorus have lines by Mervyn Peake (1911-1968), set to music that is no less disturbing. After this, the mezzo-soprano has impassioned lines of Medieval poetry depicting the anguish of Mary seeing her son on the cross. The soprano sings ‘There will be no other end of the world…’ followed by a cathartic percussion crash and brazenly discordant orchestral music leading to a huge choral/orchestral climax: we have truly been brought to the edge of the abyss.

Pott ends A Song with ‘I am the Great Sun’. This is a poem written in Normandy in 1944 by Charles Causley (1917-2003). The poem is headed ‘From a Normandy crucifix of 1632’; Pott tells us that Causley found the cross in a churchyard while on active service in the war. He describes this concluding movement as ‘a summative moral epilogue’. Initially, the three soloists sing Causley’s lines with periodic interjections of ‘Agnus Dei’ from the choir. Later, after an impassioned orchestral interlude, the roles are reversed with Causley’s words entrusted to the choir while the soloists weave the ‘Agnus’ around the choral music. Increasingly, the music becomes more stirring and it seems warmer than anything we have heard previously. Is there hope after all; is Pott saying, with the assistance of Causley, that the human spirit cannot be broken? The use of a warm, major key seems significant. The setting moves through an impressive and uplifting climactic passage before the piece winds down into what I might term an uneasy tranquillity. In the quiet closing bars, there is a tick-tock figure in the orchestra before a solitary and unexpected loud and abrupt stroke on a woodblock ends A Song.

Tonight’s performance was as fine as it was compelling. I don’t think I have heard mezzo-soprano Clare Presland before; as her voice carried to me it seemed to have an uncomfortable edge to it. Maybe that was intentional on her part, either in response to the acoustic or to the nature of the music she had in front of her; perhaps significantly, I thought I detected a degree of greater warmth in the final movement. I have heard April Fredrick on  number of past occasions, most notably in the music of John Joubert, including the opera Jane Eyre on CD and in An English Requiem here at the 2019 Three Choirs Festival (review). I thought she sang superbly; the sheer sound of her voice was very pleasing to hear, while the expressiveness she brought to the music truly brought it to life. Marcus Farnsworth confirmed his reputation as one of the country’s leading baritones with eloquent, persuasive singing. He is a noted exponent of contemporary music – I well remember his astonishing performance in Colin Matthews’ The Great Journey at the 2021 Three Choirs (review) – and here he gave further evidence of that expertise. I have already referenced the collective skill of the RPO; they made a highly accomplished contribution to this performance with a mixture of finesse and, where called for, huge power. The Festival Chorus may have had their work cut out to prepare this performance but, my goodness, their performance vindicated their efforts. I was mightily impressed by the conviction and evident attention to detail in their singing: they did the composer proud. The performance could not have been in safer hands than those of Adrian Partington. He clearly knew the score inside out and he galvanised all the performers into a vital and highly committed traversal of this challenging score. The composer seemed very gratified both by the performance and by the enthusiastic reception accorded his work.

How to sum up a work of such rich and demanding complexity – both musical and textural – on a single hearing? I have been fortunate in that my previous encounters with Pott’s music have been on CD; then I have had the opportunity to play the music more than once and to evaluate it at leisure. Here, I was faced with another huge and challenging score and my evaluation of it on a single hearing must, of necessity, be provisional, especially in terms of Movement 6. I came away from the performance feeling strongly that A Song is a profound and unsettling composition. The music is challenging but I found it vividly communicative. It is an inspired and, I believe, important score.

I fear that few concert promoting organisations will be brave enough to programme A Song on the End of the World; I can only salute the Three Choirs Festival not only for prompting the composition of this work in the first place but also for having the courage and enterprise to give it a second airing. I am saddened to think that the reality is that I may never hear it again but I am very grateful that I have had the chance to do so in this gripping, inspiring performance.

John Quinn

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