Intriguing and interesting programme of British music at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2023 [3] – Corp, Vaughan Williams, Higgins: Roderick Williams (baritone), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano), Rebecca Jones (viola), Three Choirs Festival Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 23.7.2023. (JQ)

Martyn Brabbins conducts Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the BBC NOW © James O’Driscoll

Ronald CorpHail and Farewell (premiere)
Vaughan WilliamsFlos Campi
Gavin HigginsThe Faerie Bride

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales paid a welcome visit to the Three Choirs Festival to give a concert which was recorded for transmission on BBC Radio 3 at a later date – presumably, after the Proms have finished. They brought with them an intriguing and interesting programme of British music.

To begin, we heard the premiere of Hail and Farewell, a new song cycle for baritone and string orchestra by the composer and conductor, Ronald Corp (b.1951). The cycle was written – and commissioned – in memory of a friend of the composer, Carolyn Pascall, who died suddenly in 2020. Among her many musical interests and accomplishments, she was, at the time of her death, a board member of Three Choirs Festival. Corp said in a programme note that he planned the new cycle as ‘both a celebration of a life lived to the full and a memorial’. One thing he was keen to feature was Pascall’s love of carousels; that was reflected in two of the selected poems. The songs were written for the Festival’s Honorary Patron, Roderick Williams, who premiered them.

The cycle began with a boisterous, happy setting of the old anonymous English poem, ‘Pleasure it is’. This was followed by one of the carousel poems: ‘Chevaux de bois’ by Verlaine, a poem also set by Debussy. The poem was set in French and, for the most part, at a swift tempo. Williams is renowned for the clarity of his diction. However, I couldn’t make out the words at all – and I discovered later that other audience members had the same problem. Perhaps this will not be such an issue in a less resonant acoustic; I heard the words of the other songs without difficulty. Next up was the Shakespeare setting, ‘When, in disgrace with fortune’. This was the point at which the cycle adopted a more serious tone. That seriousness was even more pronounced in the setting of the poem ‘Ave atque vale’ by Catullus, the English translation of which furnishes the title of the cycle. This poem was sung in the original Latin, a decision which, I think, rightly served to set the song slightly apart from the others. Corp’s music was elegiac and Williams sang the song with noble eloquence. Another carousel poem followed and lifted the mood. ‘Roundabout’ was written by Diana Jones when Corp despaired of finding a suitable carousel text (it was only later that he was pointed in the direction of Verlaine, he told us). The setting is scherzo-like, with galloping figurations in the accompaniment. This is a happy song. So, too, is the concluding ‘My spirit sang all day’. Corp’s musical response may not have quite matched the exaltation of Gerald Finzi’s setting of these lines by Robert Bridges but it was still an exuberant setting and a very good way to remember in a happy way a departed friend.

These are attractive songs with pleasing vocal lines that enhance the texts. Williams sang them with his customary engagement and care for the words. I wasn’t quite so sure about the accompaniment – though this is no reflection on Martyn Brabbins and the excellent BBC NOW. At a first hearing, the string textures seem a bit unvaried, though maybe re-hearing the cycle when it is broadcast will encourage me to modify that view. As it was, Hail and Farewell received an excellent first performance, which must have delighted the composer. He and his songs were enthusiastically received by the audience.

It was something of a programming masterstroke that we next heard Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi. It was great to hear this very unfairly neglected work, of course, but it took on extra resonance for those of us in the audience who had been present the previous night at the enthralling performance of Sancta Civitas (review). It is quite astonishing that VW composed a work of the pastel beauty and mystic qualities of Flos Campi at exactly the same point in his career that he was tearing up musical trees in the mighty and dramatic Sancta Civitas. Tonight, the key solo viola part was played by Rebecca Jones, the principal violist of the BBC NOW.

Inspired by the Song of Songs, Flos Campi is an extraordinary, audacious work. Its textures are daringly subtle and leave all the performers with no hiding place – not that a hiding place was needed tonight. The work is arguably the most sensuous score in VW’s entire output. In his thoughtful programme note, Gwilym Bowen referenced the influence of Ravel, with whom VW had briefly studied. He mentioned Daphnis et Chloé, where the use of a wordless chorus gives an obvious parallel, but I thought he made an even more telling comparison with the concluding movement, ‘Le jardin féerique’, from the ballet Ma mère l’Oye. Though much of Flos Campi seems tranquil on the surface, I think it is akin to the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in that underneath the subdued surface there’s an awful lot of emotional turbulence. As Michael Kennedy has justly observed of Flos Campi, ‘It seems likely that the music was generated by human passion and love, and it certainly seems gloriously pagan’.

Jones was a very fine soloist and she clearly appreciated that this work is not a concerto; rather, she was the leading voice, prima inter pares. The husky tone of her viola was beautifully projected and I felt that she conveyed the spirit of the music most successfully. In the closing section, based on ‘Set me as a seal’, her playing was especially eloquent. Her BBC NOW colleagues, the principal oboist in particular, gave her sensitive and very stylish support. It must have helped that in Brabbins we had a seasoned VW conductor on the rostrum; his recently completed CD cycle of all the VW symphonies for Hyperion confirms his intuitive feel for the composer’s music. The wordless semi chorus made a fine contribution. I believe these were the same singers who had performed the similar function in Sancta Civitas the night before. Flos Campi is emphatically not a choral work; rather, the singers are an additional part of the overall texture and these singers had clearly been trained so that they understood this.

This was an excellent performance of Flos Campi, one which showed how wonderful the music is and how disappointing it is that the piece is not more frequently programmed.

After the interval we were treated to a performance of The Faerie Bride by Gavin Higgins (b.1983). Higgins hails from the Forest of Dean, which is in Gloucestershire but which sits close to the border with Wales. In 2020, he became Composer in Association with BBC NOW. His Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra was premiered, with great success, at the 2022 BBC Proms by the Tredegar Town Band and the BBC NOW. Tonight’s soloists, orchestra and conductor premiered The Faerie Bride at the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival and this performance of the cantata was, I believe, its third. I think I may be right in saying, though, that this was the second performance of a revised version of the score which now includes the use of a small chorus, of which more in a moment.

The cantata has a libretto by Francesca Simon. I will very briefly summarise the theme of the work, as laid out in much more detail in the composer’s programme note. The story is inspired by the Welsh legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach. The Lady in question (always referred to simply as ‘Woman’) has fairy powers. She lives in a lake where she is spotted by the Man. He woos her and eventually she agrees to marry him, but with the caveat that should he ever strike her ‘three blows’ she will return to the lake. The aforementioned blows turn out to be psychological rather than physical. Over the course of the next few years, as related in the story, the Man offends the Woman on three occasions and after the third such occurrence she returns to the lake from whence she came, taking with her not only the couple’s sons but also the wealth they have accumulated in the form of livestock. So, the Man loses everything. During their marriage the Woman is never accepted by the Villagers (the chorus) who make their disapproval clear on three separate occasions.

The cantata is divided into five Parts (‘The Lake’ and each of the four seasons of the year) plus a short Prologue and Epilogue. The whole score plays without a break.

There is much to admire in Higgins’ score. The very substantial roles for the two soloists are well written. Their vocal lines are strongly melodic and I was delighted that Higgins eschews the spiky type of vocal writing that one encounters from several contemporary composers. Instead, the vocal parts are highly expressive and it seemed to me that the music was extremely well written for the soloists. In both cases, the singers were able to spin a strong narrative. In Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Roderick Williams we had ideal soloists; both of them were convincingly ‘in character’ and offered expressive, compelling performances.

A key feature of the work is the very colourful and inventive orchestral scoring. The orchestration illustrated and enhanced what was going on in the narrative very effectively. I loved in particular the way in which at the very start Higgins conjures up an evocative image of the lake with the music rising mysteriously and quietly from the very depths of the orchestra, the music gradually moving ever upwards in the orchestral register. At the end, after the Woman has disappeared back into the lake, Higgins retraces his footsteps, as it were, gradually going back to the quiet depths; this time, however, he subtly adds the very quiet sound of harp and high strings.

This score is, I think, the work of a composer with an excellent and imaginative command of the orchestra. One thing that pleased me very much was the fact that even though the orchestral scoring is full of detail and incident it never swamps the soloists. From my seat, two-thirds of the way down the cathedral nave, I was able to hear both soloists, and their words, clearly. Brabbins kept everything on a firm trajectory, using his significant operatic experience to excellent effect so that the narrative thread was sustained.

The small choir has three brief interventions in the score. My understanding is that in previous performances the two soloists sang these short passages of popular disapproval in unison. I think it makes much greater sense to have these words – which, after all, are the words of third parties – sung by other singers. That said, I do wonder if Higgins could not have made greater use of the choir. If they had been given the opportunity, perhaps, to comment on the story from time to time I think that would have added an extra dimension to the score – and an additional texture to the fabric of the work. As things stand, in a work lasting some 47 minutes, the choir is, frankly, underused.

Overall, though, I think The Faerie Bride is a most interesting work and a fine achievement. The composer and librettist were present to experience the work’s enthusiastic reception from the Three Choirs Festival audience.

John Quinn

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