To begin with, a cavil: if your aim is to mark the 100th anniversary of Hubert Parry’s death, then the programme should consist of Parry’s music; to include Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia seems like a slap in the face (and with Jerusalem and I was glad on the menu, there was enough to attract the classical-pops audience). Parry’s oeuvre includes some lovely and rarely-performed orchestral works (the Piano Concerto, the symphonies, the delightful English Suite) which could have made for a more fitting tribute.
That aside, the performance of I was glad that opened the concert was tremendous. The Gloucester Choral Society and the Oxford Bach Choir occupied most of the choir stalls, and, singing without score, fired all their guns in a massive, triumphant cannonade (with a lavish diminuendo/crescendo on ‘glad’) accompanied by full orchestra and organ. The tempo set by Adrian Partington was slightly ponderous – which added a certain ‘coronation’ authenticity – but the changing dynamics were tightly adhered to throughout.
Marie-Elisabeth Hecker joined the orchestra for a performance of what was apparently Elgar’s double-concerto for cello and sinuses. This Spring seems to have been rife with sniffers, and Hecker is a mistress of the art, imbuing every ‘this-is-intensely-emotional’ passage with loud nasal intakes, such that the Lento sounded as though the bow was being dragged through dry leaves. It was, nonetheless, a stirring account, that made full use of the different timbral possibilities of the cello, including the elegantly placed pizzicato passages in the opening movement – although the intonation on some of the runs was a little awry. The Philharmonia turned in an excellent performance – particularly enjoyable was the stylish highlighting of the marcato phrase-completions at the end of the first movement. The large orchestra, though, made for some oddly abrupt dynamic contrasts between the soloist-accompanied sections and those where the orchestra was allowed full rein.
The account of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was utterly charming and subtle, giving a new lease of life to an old war-horse. Partington controlled the dynamic impeccably, and made full use of the differences in string groupings: the large orchestra was majestic, and the solo quartet (from within this orchestra) echoed this majesty in intensely virtuosic lines. By contrast, the smaller orchestral group (set on one side of the platform) produced a thinner, softer sound, that was akin to that of a consort of (Tallis’?) viols. And, despite the intensity, not a sniff was audible.
Parry’s Ode on the Nativity (words by the 16th-century William Dunbar) is a piece that deserves much more exposure, particularly at Christmas when performances of Messiah are all-pervasive. Although sections of the work are in Parry’s grandiose 19th-century style (with some magnificently martial passages in the second stanza and a splendid horn-chorus in the fourth stanza), the composer also employs a pastoral theme in the woodwind (reminiscent of the 18th-century Italian and French tropes) that weaves its way into unexpected corners, suddenly conjuring simpler, bucolic past-times. Throughout, both orchestra and chorus provided some well-judged contrasts of dynamic, from the unaccompanied choral pianissimo in the fifth stanza’s ‘qui nobis’ to the exultantly broad ‘sing heaven’ in the last stanza (whose volume was neatly brought back down to the close with a slow meander from the bass clarinet). The mezzo Eleanor Dennis was the perfect choice for the work: her voice (with just the right amount of ‘period’ vibrato) was sweet in the solo passages and powerful enough to sound over the full forces in the gloriously abandoned tutti sections.