The Great Journey at Three Choirs Festival


Worcester Cathedral *****

The three-centuries old Three Choirs Festival has long been lumbering along with the perceived need, vestiges of which still obtain, to bludgeon us with the great choral masterpieces, and not always in the greatest performances.
Nothing of that, thank goodness, in Sunday's refreshing concert from the Goldfield Ensemble conducted by Adrian Partington. The absentees from a depressingly sparse audience will regret what they missed.
Partington is no old-school organist descending from the organ-loft to flail about on the podium. He is a most meticulous, forensic conductor, his finger-twitching imperious hands imparting his dissections of the score to the performers in the manner of the austere but so magisterial Pierre Boulez (Boulez gets a mention at the Three Choirs!).
Partington's probing skills really came into their own in the movingly triumphant account of Colin Matthews' The Great Journey which ended this comfortably interval-less evening. Before this amazing work, however, we heard Ethel Smyth's "Chrysilla" and "La Danse", flowing and delicate, and very far from the grimly Germanic, Leipzig-drilled music which emerged from the Dame's pen.
The Goldfield Ensemble played colourfully, indeed fragrantly, and baritone Marcus Farnsworth shaded his tones mellifluously and indeed beautifully.
Farnsworth had a huge hurdle ahead of him, but before that the Goldfields gave a sparkling, gratefully account of Gabriel Jackson's collage-like tone poem In the Mendips. Nothing happens here, and all the episodes eventually remain the same in their textures and imagery (we hear The Lark Ascending a couple of times). It was easy for the concentration to dip in and out of this, and still return to the same place.
Unlike in Matthews' The Great Journey, a huge work perhaps too complicated for frequent programming, but one which reflects the Three Choirs great credit for presenting it here.
This near hour-long setting of the journal of a very early Spanish conquistadore proved amazingly gripping, and Marcus Farnsworth delivered a tour de force of stamina, vocal stability over such a range of time, and shading emotional engagement. The Goldfield's broken consort of eight musicians played heroically, but I must single out the amazing percussionist flitting between many exotic instruments, activated equally exotically, and the virtuoso horn-player with an indestructible lip.
Matthews has lone been a great acolyte of Benjamin Britten, and it shows here, as we begin and end with reminiscences of Captain Vere's opening and closes ruminations at the end of Billy Budd. The coruscating use of the octet, reinforces this sense of influence, and sometimes reminds of The Turn of the Screw, too. But no matter. The Great Journey is a masterpiece, though perhaps too complex to achieve frequent performance. Partington and his forces here did it more than proud.
One grump, as I have done before for other festivals. Worcester, you have a captive audience of three-figure visitors over the next few days. Why are so many of your catering establishments closing so early, when you could be recouping some of your pandemic losses?
Christopher Morley

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