Three Choirs Festival 2012: A Preview

284th Meeting of the Three Choirs  Festival 2012: A Preview

The Three Choirs Festival, which can trace its origins back to the early eighteenth century, stages the 284th meeting of the Three Choirs in 2012. This year it’s the turn of Hereford to host the Festival, which will be directed by Geraint Bowen, the Master of the Music at Hereford Cathedral. Normally the Festival takes place in early August but this year Britain will be in the grip of Olympics Fever at that time. So the Three Choirs organisers have taken the very sensible decision to bring the Festival forward and it will run from 21 to 28 July. What follows is an unashamedly personal selection of highlights from the programme.

Geraint Bowen has put together a varied and very attractive programme. As usual, a prime focus for any Three Choirs Festival is the series of major choral and orchestral concerts which take place most evenings in the cathedral. For the majority of these the Festival Chorus will be joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, which is continuing its very fruitful relationship with the Festival and will be resident for the week.

The first of these concerts is devoted to Haydn’s Creation (21 July, 19.45). Haydn’s evergreen masterpiece will be conducted by Mr Bowen and there’s more Haydn the following morning when his ‘Nelson’ Mass can be heard in a liturgical context, sung by the Hereford Cathedral Choir, during the Festival Eucharist (22 July,10.30).

The next evening brings Adrian Partington, Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral, to the podium to conduct the mighty Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams. The programme will also include a new, so far untitled orchestral work by the young British composer, Joseph Phibbs (23 July, 19.45). The Philharmonia and Festival Chorus then enjoy an evening off, leaving Bach’s St. John Passion to be performed by the combined forces of the three cathedral choirs and the Music for Awhile Orchestra. A strong line-up of soloists includes John Mark Ainsley, Iestyn Davies and Matthew Brook. Geraint Bowen conducts (24 July, 19.45).

An intriguing prospect is a very rare chance to hear Sir George Dyson’s The Canterbury Pilgrims under guest conductor, Martyn Brabbins. I’ve been looking forward to this ever since the preliminary announcement of the festival programme last year. The work has gone right out of fashion – unfairly so in my view – and though I have a dim recollection of attending a performance decades ago by the choral society of my home town, Halifax – where Dyson himself was born – I’ve never had a chance subsequently to hear the work live and I know it only through the fine recording by Richard Hickox. I strongly applaud the Three Choirs for staging this revival (25 July, 19.45).

The 150th anniversary of the birth of Delius is marked more than once by the Festival, including a performance of Sea Drift (with James Rutherford as soloist). This programme also includes one of my favourite singers, Sarah Connolly, in a favourite work, The Music Makers by Elgar. Additional interest in this concert stems from the fact that it will be conducted by Peter Narone, the new Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral, taking part in his first Three Choirs Festival (26 July, 19.45). The following evening sees the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. The Festival has taken the pragmatic decision to bring forward the start time of the final choral/orchestral concert to avoid clash. Berlioz’s magnificent Te Deum is the major work on the programme (27 July, 18.00).

The cathedral evening concerts offer music on a large scale but the Festival also hosts many more intimate concerts. Lovers of English song – and of fine singing – will need no encouragement to seek out the recitals by Dame Felicity Lott (21 July, 14.30) and by Roderick Williams (26 July, 11.00). Roderick Williams includes Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel while Dame Felicity’s equally enticing programme will take her audience from Purcell to Britten by way of Elgar, Gurney and others.

The King’s Singers will perform in the cathedral (24 July, 14.30). Their programme, entitled ‘Royal Rhymes and Rounds’, has been created to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. A piano recital by Mark Bebbington will include the first performance of a new piano sonata by David Briggs, former Organist of Gloucester Cathedral (27 July, 11.00) while among several organ recitals the one that catches the eye in particular is the appearance of Thomas Trotter (23 July, 11.00).

As ever with the Three Choirs there will be events going on virtually all day, every day and including chamber music, organ recitals and talks by distinguished speakers. As usual, Evensong will be sung almost every evening, providing an oasis of reflection during the busy daily schedule.

Full details of the Festival, including information about when and how to book, are available on the Festival website.

John Quinn