Ethel Smyth Mass in D - Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral by Christopher Morley

The Three Choirs Festival, now over 300 years old, is currently in excellent health. Its Chorus, drawn from the three cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, is trained to the level where amateur enthusiasm is matched by professional standards, it boasts one of the country's finest ensembles (the Philharmonia) as orchestra-in-association, its administration is more on the ball than it has ever been, and hospitality is welcoming.
And in Saturday's opening concert of this year's meeting at Hereford the Festival Chorus under Geraint Bowen sang with warm firmness of tone, well-cultivated diction in a demanding acoustic, and a huge air of commitment, abetted by an alert Philharmonia (once some of its players had ceased chatting during the opening prayers). All concerned gave willing and lively performances of the two works on offer.
John Ireland's These Things Shall Be, a BBC commission for the 1937 Coronation of King George VI, is a splendid piece, unified by tiny recurring motifs, but one whose noble aspirations almost mock us in today's broken world. In this august setting its effect was glorious.
The Mass in D by Ethel Smyth, programmed here to honour her association with the suffragettes in this centenary year of some women being allowed the vote, looks less than promising from a read-through of the score. When translated into sound, those doubts become uncomfortable realities.
Written in 1893, the piece is a sweaty reworking of everything Smyth had picked up during her privileged study in Leipzig. Brahms is a huge presence, with syncopations designed to impart fervour, triplet rhythms either decorating melodic lines or emulsifying turgid textures, and the great Mass in D by Beethoven is even plundered to the extent of attempting Palestrinian counterpoint, something the Bonn master encompassed so triumphantly.
Worst of all is Smyth's ridiculous idea of placing the Gloria last, in order to achieve a triumphant conclusion to the Mass. This is anti-liturgical, sacrilegious, and turns the whole affair into a vocal divertissement.
All concerned, including a noble solo quartet, laboured heroically, but never have I been more relieved to reach the conclusion of a musical performance.
Christopher Morley

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