Music: The real sound of English song

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The Independent Culture
Hubert Parry

Three Choirs Festival

Berthold Goldschmidt


Ursula Vaughan Williams's biography of her husband, RVW, has a cherishable photograph of the composer conducting his own The Lark Ascending in 1956. Bent with age, he wears a mackintosh and hearing-aid. His hat sits on a nearby piano. And behind him rises, unmistakably, one of the great Romanesque pillars of Gloucester Cathedral. For this, like so many other snapshots of English music-making of the time, was taken during the Three Choirs Festival, an event so central to British culture, it turns up like a leitmotif through all the published histories.

Founded back in the 1720s, long before Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Bath or Cheltenham, Three Choirs was the out-of-London home for Handel in the 18th century, Mendlessohn in the 19th, and Elgar in the early 20th. And as it made its endless, circular perambulations between Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, it made news and reputations. It was where you went to feel the pulse of what was happening in music.

These days, it's a shadow of its former self, sidelined by critics (and the BBC) as insular, and time-locked in its emphasis on English choral repertory. And the emphasis in this year's Gloucester-based programmes, on the music of Sir (born 150 years ago in 1848), won't have done much to change that.

But it was Parry who laid the foundations of the English musical renaissance around the turn of the last century, and became the first composer of stature to challenge the idea that music was an exotic luxury (Vaughan Williams called it the "cigar theory"), not natural to Britain, and accordingly to be imported. Parry was most emphatically home produce. An Etonian, raised among the landed gentry, he was the Establishment personified. And though his early interests were Germanic (Brahms and Wagner), his objective was a musical language that could be described as "characteristically" English.

To late-20th-century ears, perhaps, that rings a warning note. But Parry's own idea of Englishness was antithetical to bristling jingoism. And it found its roots not in the dream of Empire, but in the actuality of the English language, which is why his most enduring works - along with those of most of the "Renaissance" composers who followed him - are text-based. Parry's chamber scores, Piano Concerto and 4th Symphony (all honourably dusted down this year at Gloucester) may well make interesting collectors' pieces. But his reputation will always hang on Jerusalem, Blest Pair of Sirens, and the coronation anthem I Was Glad - which had a rousing performance from the Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra under David Briggs (the Gloucester Cathedral organist) last weekend. And in the same programme came an example of Parry's lesser-known English democratic writing: an oratorio called The Soul's Ransom, which dates from 1906 and sets a collation of Biblical texts that manages to be more ethical than spiritual - the product of Parry's religious doubts. Vaguely Elgarian, without the punch or profile, it's a largely commonplace score, but with shafts of vision that signal a future beyond its own capacities. And there, I think, lay Parry's role: preparing ground that other hands would cultivate.

Some of those other hands - George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney - featured in a Three Choirs song recital given last weekend by tenor Richard Edgar- Wilson and accompanist Eugene Asti. It included the surprise of two completely unknown Gurney songs: one of them, "Cock-crow", a thing of true (if overwritten) beauty.

As for the hands that prepared ground for Parry himself, Three Choirs came up with an ambitious cathedral concert of Act I of Wagner's Parsifal - done in a peculiarly English way, even though the language was the original German. Richard Hickox conducted (his first Wagner opera). The orchestra was the Philharmonia. And the cast was exactly what Hickox might have used for one of his Vaughan Williams readings: Pamela Helen Stephen as Kundry, Alan Opie as Amfortas, Matthew Best as Gurnemanz, and Adrian Thompson as Parsifal. It wasn't quite Bayreuth; and there were times when Hickox had trouble amassing the intensity, and motivation, needed to sustain the slow tread of Wagnerian progress. But there was something oddly memorable about this concert. It was brave. It had a touchingly straightforward honesty. And though Matthew Best could have done with more variety of colour in his long stretches of monologue, he handled a demanding role with stamina, assurance, and an easy fluency. I was impressed - by this and by my whole Three Choirs experience. The Festival may not be what it was; but with strong programmes, well-delivered, it's considerably more than the emporium of English Pastoral memories that critics claim. Consider me a convert.

Meanwhile, in London the Proms juggernaut still trundles on - some six weeks down, two more to go - but dropping jewels in its wake, like the Deux Nocturnes by Berthold Goldschmidt, which had their premiere from the BBCSO under Jiri Belohlavek on Wednesday. A coupled pair of orchestral songs, no more than 10 minutes in total length, they were the last things Goldschmidt managed to complete before he died (aged 93) in 1996, and made an elegant codetta to the appetite for work that filled his last years after decades of near-silence. Rosemary Hardy sang them with a rather hard tone and widespread vibrato, but their valedictory beauty won through: a fond exercise in expressionism remembered, by one of the last composers able to recall it personally.