Christmas came early to Gloucester last week where, on a sultry August day before an audience in summer shirts and sandals, the cathedral gave the premiere of a new Christmas Oratorio – packaged for good measure with Britten’s Ceremony of Carols as part of a concert that will broadcast in December to listeners who’ll have no idea of the unseasonality in what they’re hearing. Such are the deceits of radio.
To write a Christmas Oratorio is a bold move: what you do will be compared with Bach. And to produce a piece that uses much-loved hymns with new and not so lovely tunes, as this one did, was a mistake on the composer’s part – the composer being Bob Chilcott, who writes in the breezy, easy-listening manner of John Rutter without the moments of genius that rescue Rutter from banality.
His new oratorio struck me as bland: a piece that will probably sell on the American choral circuit because it’s (as they say) a grateful sing, though otherwise unspecial. But that said, it had a touch of class in the performance, thanks to a radiant soloist in Dame Sarah Connolly – who I didn’t expect to see on the platform: she’s been unwell and forced to cancel most of her performances this summer – and a powerhouse chorus that combined the choirs of three cathedrals: Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester.
For this was a concert in the venerable Three Choirs Festival: the oldest-established music festival in the world, running for over 300 years in perpetual circulation between those three spiritual centres in the mid-west of England.
Its glory days were in the early 20th Century when Elgar, Finzi, Howells, Vaughan Williams and their like were central to its life, composing works specifically configured to the grand acoustics of these ancient buildings. It was for Gloucester in 1910 that VW wrote his deathless Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, with two string orchestras aurally swimming in the depths of the cathedral sound.
Although the currency of Three Choirs has diminished in terms of a contemporary-music world that no longer privileges organs, massed choirs and cathedral culture, it still generates and celebrates new work. As it did this year (more productively than with the Chilcot) in a super-charged broadcast Evensong where every item sung or played, except the hymn-tune, was by James MacMillan – who was there to give it all his blessing and sign autographs.
Where Three Choirs really scores, though, is the classic English choral-society repertoire for large amateur forces. It’s the place to hear a Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony (done this year at Gloucester with Roderick Williams in his element as the baritone soloist), or monster-sized Handel like the Israel in Egypt that played a few days earlier in a bloated 19th-century Romantic version made by Mendelssohn to be performed with tableaux vivants.
Sadly, Gloucester only did the music, not the tableaux: I’d have paid good money to see Three Choirs chorus-members re-enacting plagues of locusts and the parting of the Red Sea.
As it was, this Mendelssohnian Handel turned out to be heavy-going, albeit with an elegant baritone soloist in emerging star James Newby. And there was another fine soloist the next night when Kathryn Rudge sang Berlioz’s Nuits d’Eté with a clarity that eluded the accompanying Philharmonia Orchestra in the next work on the programme: Walton’s biting, brilliant but in these circumstances rather muddy 1st Symphony.
Not everything at Three Choirs comes in bulk, though. And an interesting example was a small concert that took place not in Gloucester Cathedral but in the recently restored remains of Llanthony Secunda: a priory founded in 1136 by an Augustinian community who fled to the outskirts of Gloucester when their original house, Llanthony Prima, came under attack from marauding Welshmen.
In its day Llanthony was by all accounts a large and beautiful estate, home to some sixty canons. It welcomed monarchs, such as Henry VII, as frequent visitors. But with the Reformation came the standard story of closure and decline. And by our own time it was scattered ruins, lost in Gloucester’s bleak industrial suburbs.
But no more. The suburbs are as bleak as ever, but Llanthony has been favoured by the Heritage Lottery fund, its grounds re-ordered, and one of its buildings tastefully reconstructed into a performance space. Which is where, under Three Choirs auspices, a group called the Glevum Consort (most of them cathedral lay-clerks) sang a programme related to Llanthony Secunda’s history.
Pride of place went to the 13th-century Marian hymn Edi beo thu hevene quene, known as the Llanthony Carol because its manuscript originated in Llanthony’s collegiate library. But the repertoire pressed on to Fayrfax, Tallis, Byrd: the Tudor usuals. And more unconventionally, it included the 17th-century William Child, whose O Lord God, the heathen are come bore roundabout reference to the fact that, in the Civil War, Llanthony was a Royalist encampment during the siege of Gloucester, with a particularly large cannon (as opposed to canon) hoisted up onto a wall.
Intended as the secret weapon to break Gloucester’s defences, it exploded on first use and fell off the wall, inspiring the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. And if only Glevum had finished their programme with some smart, close-harmony arrangement of that rhyme, it would have made a perfect ending. But they didn’t, and they have a three-year wait till Three Choirs comes their way again. In 2020 it’s at Worcester.