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Review: Three Choirs Festival, Festival Youth Choir, Festival Chorus at Hereford Cathedral

It takes a lot to upstage Fauré’s Requiem, but it happened on Monday afternoon with a Three Choirs Festival commission, Centuries of Meditation by the young British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova.

It takes a lot to upstage Fauré’s Requiem, but it happened on Monday afternoon with a Three Choirs Festival commission, Centuries of Meditation by the young British/Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova.

The work is a setting of words by the 17th century mystic Thomas Traherne, which inspired Tom Denny’s four stained glass windows in the Audley Chapel of Hereford Cathedral. And like the burnished reds, gold and greens of the windows, the music itself blazes with light and texture.

Tabakova’s style is deceptively minimalist, but never in an over repetitive way. It makes felicitous use of repeated chord patterns and ostinati (strings of the Orchestra of the Swan were glowingly sonorous) and long vocal lines (sustained with lustrous fortitude by the disciplined and surprisingly mature sounding TCF Youth Choir) that grow exponentially towards a sense of wondrous fulfilment.

Although not designed as a companion-piece to the Fauré, this new and hauntingly beautiful composition seemed strangely apposite, perhaps due to its shared themes of faith, love and humanity; and in performance terms there was little to choose between them under David Hill’s eloquently shaped direction.

Even so, although the choir sang both works with secure purity of tone and shading (soloists Katie Trethewey and Marcus Farnsworth were excellent in the Requiem) and OOTS played with impressively focused tonal control, it was Tabakova’s piece that made the greater impact.

For the evening concert – Festival Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra with Adrian Partington in quietly authoritative control – a recent work by Joseph Phibbs was pitched against Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. However, Rivers to the Sea is quite unlike VW’s choral extravaganza.

Although written for large orchestra, which Phibbs uses with welcome restraint and clarity of purpose, Rivers to the Sea is more impressionistic than illustrative. Phibbs’ concerns are colour and sonority; melodic fragments are always present, but they act as links between areas of activity rather then elements for development.

In short, Rivers to the Sea is a kaleidoscopic essay in sound, constantly eddying and flowing much like the sea itself. It’s also brilliantly scored – Phibbs has an acute ear for instrumental timbres – and makes very effective use of all orchestral departments.

True, one can detect echoes of other composers, and the last movement is less concentrated than the others, but that is perhaps due more to creative abundance than self-indulgence. Whatever, it was stunningly well played by the Philharmonia and conducted by Partington with tremendous aplomb.

The Sea Symphony was, as they say, something else. Again, conductor and orchestra rose magnificently to the task, with the Festival Chorus and soloists Ailish Tynan and Owen Gilhooly giving everything to produce some thrilling ‘big’ moments, as at the first movement’s climax. And in quieter sections, like the nocturnal Largo (melliflously sung by Gilhooly) and the haunting ‘Wherefore unsatisfied soul?’ siren song of the fourth movement there were moments of real beauty.

Miraculously, too, nobody coughed during those barely audible magical final bars. Good to know that even the largest Three Choirs audience knows how to pay respect.

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