Christopher Morley reviews the Three Choirs Festival

GERONTIUS ENDS A BRILLIANT THREE CHOIRS


THREE CHOIRS FESTIVAL
Hereford Cathedral *****
What was a very successful Three Choirs Festival week concluded with packed houses for the two concluding evening concerts in Hereford Cathedral, and there was a subtle link between the two events.
Friday's concert indeed lived up to its "Transformations" title, opening with Stravinsky's arrangement of Bach's "Vom Himmel Hoch" Canonic Variations. Conductor Adrian Partington did his best with this clumsy work, low-lying for the reduced Festival Chorus, and scratchy for the upper stringless Philharmonia Orchestra. Amazing how much of the woodwind filigree sounded like Walton's Wise Virgins Bach Transcriptions.
A full string complement provided a wonderfully buoyant, sonorous backdrop to Gerald Finzi's Dies Natalis. We normally hear a tenor in these Thomas Traherne settings, always feeling that these are the musings of a boy child just delivered from the otherworld, but why not a girl? Elizabeth Watts brought quiet rapture to her delivery of the solo part, bringing a different dimension to our built-in preconceptions.
Partington followed with an amazingly tight, unrelentlessly exciting Britten Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell. This Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra allows every instrument to shine in its true colours, and here the Philharmonia rose to the occasion. The concluding Fugue was a genuine triumph for all concerned, even for the poor percussionists cloistered away beyond our view – but full marks for the excellent closed circuit television coverage, multi-screened throughout the cathedral, and so brilliantly directed.
Watts returned to deliver emotional solos in Poulenc's Stabat Mater, such an endearing work encapsulating so many of this adorable composer's moods and styles, and with a full Festival Chorus responding so empathetically under Partington's baton.
A further three great operatic singers graced the platform for Saturday's concluding concert, which began with the Philharmonia in resplendent form for Elgar's resourceful transcription of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor (a nice link with the Stravinsky of the previous evening, and I know which I prefer).
Then came the meat of the evening, Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, such a traditional fixture in this Festival, but here thankfully in an account aeons away from the stuff-shirted presentations I encountered at the Three Choirs fifty years ago.
This performance relished in the work's Wagnerian context, all three soloists so experienced in the genre, though this was tenor Nicky Spence's debut in the title role. His was such an endearingly communicative delivery, his eyes covering every one of us in the audience, and we look forward to an even more gripping "Sanctus, fortis" in what will undoubtedly be future appearances.
His operatic engagement with Sarah Connolly's Angel was more revealing than I have ever known, and Connolly's compassion, reacting so plausibly to every turn of this Purgatorial odyssey, was totally moving. Neal Davies was magnificently assertive, both as the Priest and later as the imposing angel of the Agony. One quibble: in this Catholic work, Latin in its hinterland, why did Connolly sing the Anglicanised "subveneyete" instead of the far more attractive and authentic "subvenite"?
Diction from the soloists was magnificent, but some in the Festival Chorus barely opened their mouths and raised their heads from their scores. I have remarked upon this before, and perhaps someone will take notice. The Demons' Chorus was slightly underpowered, but Geraint Bowen's excellent contingent at last came into its own with "Praise to the Holiest ".
Bowen's chief concerns were indeed with his Chorus, but the Philharmonia provided colourful, generous support, so many, many marks to them.
Not so much to those in charge of the Cathedral precincts. Just outside the north porch there is an unsigned raised kerb. One lady had already tripped over that, and was lying on the grass recovering. I was the second, and have horrible bruises on my left hand and elsewhere to prove it. Dean and Chapter, do something!
Christopher Morley

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