Saturday, 14 August 2010

Three Choirs Festival Finzi Gurney Elgar

At the Three Choirs Festival, concerts start with prayers, which is a good thing, because it reminds us how lucky we are. Without music, beauty, spirituality (of any form) what would life be?

Gerald Finzi's Intimations of Immortality is an act of faith, too, in the power of art to transcend. Relatively few composers have dared tackle William Wordsworth, whose poetry is too thorny  to adapt easily to song. Finzi took years perfecting his Thomas Traherne setting, Dies Natalis, but daringly threw himself spontaneously into Intimations of Immortality.

It's ambitious, requiring a large orchestra, a well trained chorus and a tenor with the fortitude to sustain 45 minutes of singing against a loud background. Finzi attempts to match the grand, stirring verse of Wordsworth with an equally expansive orchestral setting. For a composer whose strength was in smaller scale chamber and choral music and song, it is quite an achievement. As Finzi quipped "it makes a hell of a noise, but rather a wonderful noise all told".

James Gilchrist is perhaps the finest exponent, against very strong competition (Ainsley, Langridge, Partridge) because he enters into the heroic spirit of this monumental piece. Against the vast forces behind him, and in the vastness of Gloucester Cathedral, Gilchrist's voice rings out resolutely. He's very moving, for he breathes meaning into what he sings, making Wordsworth's convoluted text feel personal and immediate. Get his recording, it's wonderful, the best introduction to the piece..

Like  Dies Natalis, the introduction whispers themes to come.  The orchestra is singing "There was a time, when meadow, grove and stream" before the voice comes in. The idea of unity between soloist, choir and orchestra, central to the mysticism in the piece.

 Gilchrist draws you into "the visionary gleam". "Waters on a starry night" sings Gilchrist, with the subtlest pause before and after the image, as if he's contemplating a wondrous jewel.  Then again, with "the innocent brightness of a newborn day". What miracle is happening here ? Overwhelming ecstasy that can't be explained in mundane terms, exquisitely wondrous. "Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears", revealed by Gilchrist's shining conviction.

The Philharmonia Orchestra, from London, are talking up a three year residence at the Three Choirs Festival,  so their playing adds a sheen much more polished than average. In time, they'll absorb Finzi's very unusual idiom, where intuition counts as much as form. The Philharmonia is possibly the finest British orchestra, steeped in European repertoire. Adrian Lucas, who conducted,  is an organist and choirmaster, long associated with Three Choirs. It was interesting to hear how these two different traditions combine. This partnership between Three Choirs and the Philharmonia could prove quite an innovation.

The Philharmonia has done quite a lot of Elgar. Here at Gloucester, Sarah Connolly was soloist for Sea Pictures, singing with heroic purpose,  Boudicca refined and cultured.

The real rarity on this programme, however, was Ivor Gurney's The Trumpet, receiving its first professional performance, 80 years after it was written.  Gurney was Gloucester born, so deeply identified with the area that, in some ways, he died of a broken heart, forcibly confined in an asylum far away. When a map of the Cotswolds was smuggled into him, he obsessively traced his old hiking trails with his fingers. If only he could have known that his music would be given high profile exposure at Three Choirs, and in Gloucester Cathedral, where he sang in the choir and learned his music.
Gerald Finzi would have been happy, too, for he passionately championed Gurney. I don't know if Christopher and Hilary Finzi were in the audience, (they usually are) for their presence would have felt like completing a circle.

The Trumpet, based on a poem by Edward Thomas (text here), is a short piece for choir and orchestra, recently restored in full orchestration by Philip Lancaster. "Rise up! Rise up!" sing the combined voices, "Arise! Arise!". Trumpets and horns blow alarums, the effect overall uplifting. I enjoyed this! Read more about the genesis of this orchestration of The Trumpet on Philip Lancaster's site , which is a goldmine.

On Thursday 12th, another Gurney first, the restoration of Gurney's A Gloucestershire Rhapsody was premiered by The Philharmonia and Martyn Brabbins. That is a major story, no-one's picked up on nationally, except the BBC. It deserves proper respect,so please click here for more. ease keep coming back to this site, where there's lots on Gurney, Finzi, Three Choirs, Elgar etc. and will be more, too. With the beatification of John Cardinal Newman coming up, I might also write about a true life,  real miracle that happened at the last Gloucester Three Choirs Dream of Gerontius. Read about it HERE. Miracles don't have to be fancy stuff like raising the dead and moving mountains.  But there are uncanny, inexplicable things that do immense good. PLEASE READ many other articles and reviews on this site about 3 Choirs, Ivor Gurney, Finzi, Hubert Parry, Butterworth and English music - use labels at right or search button.

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