Over the top in all scales

Click to follow
SHUDDER, SALZBURG: eat your heart out, Edinburgh. In a hot, high August, forget the Salzgammergut, yea, a pox on Princes Street. The place to be is glorious English Severnside.

They say the Three Choirs Festival is old hat. What piffle. I have just attended nine days of the most extraordinary, daringly planned and exciting music I have encountered at any British Festival in years.

Nicolas Bury, the Dean of Gloucester, fired the starting gun. "Why not go over the top?" he urged. Well, this year's Three Choirs organisers sure got the message. What could be more OTT than Parsifal - the whole, long drawn-out first act - with a solo cast of thousands? (Matthew Best's Gurnemanz, magnificent; Mark Beesley's Titurel, unnerving, a kind of male Erda; and Alan Opie's Amfortas, outstanding. The Philharmonia, true heroes of the week, delivered for Richard Hickox, making his first assault on the Grail a dream of a performance. The audience's hushed silence could have been cut with a knife.

And all this only the night after David Briggs - a Francophile to put it mildly - had delivered a Berlioz Damnation of Faust to knock you off your seats (Opie terrific as Mephisto, and the baritone Roderick Williams adding a bouncy Brander to his exquisite solo recitals and appearances elsewhere). Bach's B minor Mass the evening before was an equal joy - thanks chiefly to Nicki Kennedy and Robin Blaze: no need to jet in Andreas Scholl - we already have our own.

Briggs is still new to the game; his conducting is immensely promising (witness a cracking Carnaval Romain and thrilling La Mer), but too self- conscious; he has yet to learn to nurse a large chorus. But it was undeniably his week; as if to prove it, fine recitalist that he is, he prefaced Friday's Parsifal by delivering the entire Mahler Fifth Symphony in his own new transcription for organ, and truly magnificent in the brilliant colourings of the Gloucester organ.

Howard Ferguson was the oldie of the festival: he may be 90, but he looks and sounds 30, and his lovely full choral setting of the mediaeval The Dream of the Rood sounds as gorgeous and lovely as ever. (Why doesn't everybody do it, for gawd's sake?) Michael Hurd, 70 in December and a Gloucestershire lad heart and soul, was the not-quite-so-oldie. His Concerto da Camera for oboe is a small gem; Shore Leave, his cycle of settings of Charles Causley ("See the noon her yellow landau draws against the fainting sky": so who's been pilfering The Merchant of Venice?). Christian Wilson trysted with Mahler; Christopher Boodle delivered a spicy new trumpet sonata; but highlight among the youngsters was Ian Venables' riveting, moody Piano Quintet, which lends a new late 20th century dimension to the English pastoral. If anyone deserves a clutch of West Midlands Arts commissions, this promising young Worcester composer does.

And I almost forgot to mention Parry. True to form Gloucester gave us the lot - chamber, choral, keyboard, his Joachim-like Overture to Unwritten Tragedy, the recently rediscovered, expansive Piano Concerto, plus a clutch of new books and reissues.

The whole mind-boggling enterprise was framed by Blest Pair of Sirens and I was Glad. A humdinger of a week.