Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, performed in the building for which it was originally written, as part of the Festival that originally commissioned it. You can’t get more authentic than that. But there was nothing remotely dusty about this Three Choirs Festival performance by the Philharmonia in Gloucester Cathedral. The Fantasia was directed from the violin by the orchestra’s leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay: a breathtaking feat of ensemble playing.
Visontay wasn’t just directing a full symphonic string section. True to the composer’s intentions, the two offstage string choirs were located out of sight in distant parts of the Cathedral. As the players listened to each other, breathing and moving together, the music seemed to make its own space and find a new voice: chamber music on a vast scale, passionate, intimate, and intensely communicative. You understood just how red-blooded and strange the Fantasia must have felt on that night in Gloucester back in 1910. A remarkable achievement.
It was Visontay’s night: he proceeded to re-invent The Lark Ascending as a folk-dance fantasy, earthy, impulsive and, at the last, piercingly beautiful. Geraint Bowen conducted; earlier he’d directed Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad rhapsody in big, sweeping arcs. After the interval came Vaughan Williams’s rarely-heard 1936 cantata Dona Nobis Pacem – again, delivered with ardour, in a performance that brought out both the bitter subtext and passionate sincerity of Vaughan Williams’s great plea for peace, with radiant solo singing from soprano Johane Ansell.
If the words didn’t always come across clearly in the Gloucester acoustic, the Festival Chorus certainly sounded like they meant them. This is Vaughan Williams at his angry, prophetic best: God knows, right now we’d do well to listen.