Electrifying Elgar sets the seal on a memorable evening at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2023 [2] – Alberga, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, The Holy City: Roderick Williams (baritone), Ruairi Bowen (tenor), Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, Gloucester Cathedral Choristers, Gloucester Cathedral Youth Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra / Adrian Partington (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 22.7.2023. (JQ)

Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin) and Adrian Partington (conductor) © James O’Driscoll

The Holy City

Eleanor AlbergaRise up, O Sun! (2023) (premiere)
Vaughan WilliamsSancta Civitas (1925)
Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor, Op 61 (1910)

This concert, the first major choral/orchestral programme of the 2023 Festival, began with the premiere of a commissioned piece for chorus and orchestra by Eleanor Alberga (b.1949). In fact, though Alberga hails from Jamaica, she now lives in Herefordshire; it was fitting, then, that this commission was offered to a composer who is now firmly established in Three Choirs country. For Rise up, O Sun! Eleanor Alberga selected lines from William Blake’s poem Vala, or The Four Zoas: Night the Ninth. Writing in the programme, she pointed out that she had only set some of Blake’s words but it was the whole poem which had inspired her. The aim of the composition, she said, was ‘above all, to celebrate life’.

The piece, which plays for some 11 minutes, made a splendid opener. The music is, for the most part, positive and energetic, though midway through, the pace relaxed for a little while during a warm and more tranquil section. The choral music is mainly homophonic and I got the distinct impression that the Festival Chorus were really enjoying singing it. The orchestration is colourful and teeming with incident; the Philharmonia played it with relish. The last few pages of the score bring about a big, exciting and affirmative conclusion to this splendid piece. If I say that Alberga has composed a piece which is right in the Three Choirs tradition – while at the same time renewing that tradition in our present century – I mean that as a sincere compliment. The composer was present and seemed delighted with the performance – as well she might be – and she was warmly applauded by the audience, who clearly enjoyed what they’d heard.

Having heard this uplifting work and performance, I lost no time in ordering a copy of a recent disc of Alberga’s orchestral music (review). I noted that the disc features the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. If Lyrita plan a follow-up disc, the inclusion of Rise up, O Sun! would be most welcome; and, of course, the conductor of the BBC National Chorus of Wales is none other than Adrian Partington.

In her programme note, Eleanor Alberga referenced William Blake as a ‘maverick visionary’. I wouldn’t wish to describe Ralph Vaughan Williams as a maverick, but his music is often that of a visionary and, arguably nowhere more so than in Sancta Civitas. There is a tangential link, though: just around the corner from Sancta Civitas lay the work which I regard as VWs orchestral masterpiece, Job. A Masque for Dancing (1927-30); that work was inspired by William Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job. Both Sancta Civitas and Job contain a heady mixture of powerfully dramatic and serenely beautiful music.

Sancta Civitas is all-too rarely heard in our concert halls. Indeed, in more than fifty years of concertgoing this was the first time I had attended a performance and I don’t believe it has been performed previously at a Three Choirs Festival. (It is worth noting, perhaps, that the work had to wait until 2015, ninety years after it was completed, for its first – and so far, only – BBC Proms performance; Sir Mark Elder with his Hallé choirs and orchestra brought the work to the Royal Albert Hall on that occasion.) So, I have had to rely on recordings by Sir David Wilcocks, Richard Hickox and David Hill (currently, to the best of my knowledge, the only single-disc recording of Sancta Civitas).

Maybe the reason the work is not more frequently performed lies in the lavish forces that VW specified. In addition to the main SATB choir and a very large orchestra, there are significant parts for an SATB semi-chorus and a distant three-part choir of sopranos and altos, who are joined by a distant trumpeter. VW was very specific about the disposition of the vocal forces. A note in the vocal score instructs that the semi-chorus should sit behind the main choir (the two sometimes combine) and should ideally consist of about 20 singers (5/6/4/4). The distant choir should ideally comprise boys’ voices, he said, though in this concert both boy and girl choristers we involved. In addition, two soloists are required: the baritone has a crucial and substantial role; the solo tenor’s contribution is no less crucial but he only sings for a few bars right at the end of the work. Another factor deterring frequent performance may be the complexity of some of the choral writing. Whatever else may deter choirs and orchestras from programming Sancta Civitas it surely cannot be the quality of the music: this is a score of great importance in VW’s catalogue of works and it is masterfully written.

VW began work on Sancta Civitas in 1923, completing it in 1925; it was first performed in May 1926. He compiled his own libretto from the Book of Revelation, mostly using the King James Authorised Version of the Bible. As Andrew Burn observed, tellingly, in his thoughtful programme note, ‘by choosing texts with which audiences of those times were familiar they could be used as powerful symbols. Here the Biblical words and the battle between good and evil became a symbol of humankind’s destructive nature and its severance from the natural order. The burning intensity of the message of Sancta Civitas is still only too relevant today’.  

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it’s a key work in VW’s output. Given that he began work on it only five years after he had witnessed some of the carnage in wartime France, I think it is highly significant that he should have composed a work such as Sancta Civitas. It comes immediately after his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony (1922), another work which bears the imprint of what he witnessed during the war, albeit the symphony expresses the mental scars in a very different, more reflective fashion.

Tonight’s performance was superb. The Festival Chorus really got hold of the music and sang it with enormous commitment – and, in the quieter episodes, with no little sensitivity. The section lamenting the fall of Babylon was delivered with aching sadness and earlier in the piece, VW’s immense climaxes were proclaimed fervently by the choir. Later on, there is a section of luminous beauty (‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth’); here the chorus very successfully conveyed the rapt nature of VW’s writing. That’s followed by an extended section of significant choral complexity (‘Heaven and earth are full of thy glory’) which the Festival Chorus made really exciting. I must not fail to mention the semi-chorus, whose contributions were unfailingly accurate and telling. Out of our sight – but definitely not out of our hearing – were the Gloucester Cathedral Choristers and Gloucester Cathedral Youth Choir, conducted by Nia Llewelyn Jones. They were positioned, along with the distant trumpeter, in the north transept; thus, VW’s spatial effects were ideally realised. The young singers sang incisively and with assurance and ensured that this key element in the score achieved exactly the right effect.

The Philharmonia played marvellously. VW’s soring is complex and inventive. The orchestral contributions to the big dramatic episodes had all the power one could wish for, but equally important was the sensitive way in which the more subdued passages were delivered. In the latter context, I was deeply impressed by the serene playing of leader Rebecca Chan in the exquisitely beautiful violin solos that introduce and then adorn the ‘New heaven’ episode.

Vaughan Williams demands a lot of the baritone soloist. Roderick Williams was, as I expected, a highly sensitive exponent of the quiet, mysterious sections of his role. At other times, VW pits his soloist against the full forces of the chorus and orchestra; in these stretches, Williams had to summon all his vocal power but was still a commanding presence. The tenor soloist has just a few bars to sing right at the end of the piece but the solo is as crucial as it is exposed. Singing from a position high up on the organ screen, behind the concert platform, Ruairi Bowen sang with expressive clarity and an ideal timbre.

A score of the complexity of Sancta Civitas needs expert direction. Adrian Partington was right on top of every aspect of the music. His direction was clear and dynamic and I admired the efforts he had gone to in order to ensure that the composer’s explicit directions about the positioning of the forces were executed. Partington energised his chorus and ensured that the orchestra were given their head but never overwhelmed the singers. It was evident that he thinks highly of the score.

I was thrilled that my first live encounter with Santa Civitas was through a performance that was outstanding in every way and which amply demonstrated the great stature of this unfairly neglected masterpiece.

Elgar’s Violin Concerto has a close connection with the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. In 1910, Elgar rented a house in College Green for the Festival week and it was there that a private run-through of the newly finished concerto took place with Elgar’s friend, W H ‘Billy’ Reed, the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, playing the violin with Elgar himself at the piano. The audience was eminent, as Reed recalled: ‘Nearly all the prominent musicians engaged at the Festival were there: the three Festival conductors … some of the music critics, and the house party’. Reed went on to recall that Fritz Kreisler arrived towards the end of the week to begin studying the concerto with the composer prior to giving the first performance in London that November.

The Philharmonia has had a long association with the Three Choirs Festival as its orchestra in residence. For many of the concerts in which they have taken part at the Festival the leader’s chair has been occupied, with distinction, by Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, their co-leader since 2007; he was just 24 when appointed to that role. So, it was a graceful compliment to him and to the Philharmonia to invite him the play the Elgar concerto tonight.

The concerto is on a huge scale: the performance lasted some 55 minutes and the first movement alone was 19 minutes. It presents manifold challenges for both the soloist and the conductor. Partington set his stall out immediately, opening the long orchestral introduction in brisk, purposeful fashion but thereafter observing all the nuances of tempo modification that Elgar, as was his wont, wove into the score. Under Partington’s baton this account of the concerto proved to be a performance of great flexibility and sensitivity; it was one, moreover imbued with Elgarian style. In the first movement, Visontay’s playing of the many bravura passages was thrilling but, time and again, what made the strongest impression on me was the poetry of his reading. There was no sentimental wallowing, but every affectionate, wistful moment was relished. His Philharmonia colleagues gave him marvellous, responsive support. As this complex movement unfolded, I got an ever-increasing sense that Visontay was spinning a narrative – and convincingly so – with Partington as his co-author

The slow movement was outstanding. Soloist and conductor were as one in doing full justice to the intimacy of the music and all the poetry – that word again – in Elgar’s music was brought out; Visontay made his violin sing, the tone golden. The movement’s brief climax was ardent. The last few pages, as the movement drew to its muted close, were genuinely moving. The opening of the finale brings swagger and dash; that was properly conveyed tonight. However, it is not long before Elgar intersperses lyrical musings and, in these episodes, Visontay’s sense of poetry was deeply impressive. But every time Elgar called for bravura Visontay responded eagerly. Hereabouts, I wondered if the Hungarian element of his roots had a bearing as he brought a fiery approach to the music. Partington and the Philharmonia worked with Visontay to ensure that the moments leading up to the famous accompanied cadenza were truly magical. Visontay made the cadenza itself into a profound yet virtuoso meditation, after which soloist and orchestra combined in an exhilarating dash for the finish.

This performance was a personal triumph for Visontay and rightly he was accorded a long ovation by the audience. His rapport with Partington was palpable; to use a tired old cliché, they were obviously ‘on the same page’ throughout. Visontay’s playing was compelling. I have heard many performances of this great concerto over the years but right now I am struggling to recall one that I have found as compelling as this one. In his excellent programme note, Richard Bratby referenced a comment by the late Michael Kennedy that ‘the soloist is called upon to be orator, singer, poet, conjuror and wizard’. I think that Visontay met all of those requirements.

This electrifying account of the Elgar Violin Concerto set the seal on a memorable evening which has set the bar high for the remaining concerts in this year’s Three Choirs Festival

John Quinn    

3 thoughts on “Electrifying Elgar sets the seal on a memorable evening at the Three Choirs Festival”

  1. Good review. From my cheap seat in the south aisle, I was happily ignorant of the differences in the choirs during the V-Williams. Visontay was indeed amazing.

  2. This was my 17th year as a singer in the Festival Chorus. Over that time I‘ve been introduced to some truly remarkable gems in the choral canon. ‘Sancta Civitas’ is the latest piece that I can pop in my portfolio of favourite concerts. The orchestral scoring is fantastic and the multiple choir effects are stunning. It was such a privilege and pleasure to sing in the semi-chorus for this masterpiece. My compliments of course to the amazing soloists and also to the main festival chorus and ‘distant’ choir. They were fantastic! Adrian Partington is a great maestro and we really appreciate his superb conducting skills and the Philharmonia are electric! Thanks to all for a truly memorable opening night ❤️


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