Transformations, Three Choirs Festival, Hereford Cathedral, 29/07/22, 4****, David Gray & Paul Gray

J S Bach – Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch ’ (arr. Stravinsky)
Finzi – Dies natalis
Britten – The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
Poulenc – Stabat Mater

Transformations proved to be an evening of music composed in a surprising diversity of styles, given
that every item in the programme was produced between 1939 and 1956.

The opening work was problematic. The Cathedral acoustic does not favour this type of busy
instrumental writing and I suspect that, even in a more flattering venue, Stravinsky’s Canonic
Variations on Bach’s ‘Vom Himmel Hosch’
would not be an easy listen. Brass and Woodwind
chattered in a spikey, jarring fashion under a heavy choral wash of sound. I could not help feel that some more incisive and shapely singing from a reduced Festival Chorus would have lifted the piece.

Finzi’s Dies natalis, a cantata for string orchestra and soprano, opens with an instrumental interlude,
Intrada. Ascending phrases are suggestive of a yearning to rise, but the music keeps getting pulled
back down to earth by dark tonal shifts. Conductor Adrian Partington beautifully captured the light
and shade of a movement expressive of a troubled and uncertain spirituality.

Soprano, Elizabeth Watts gave a self-contained, vocally grounded, reading of the next few songs; expressive but never excessive. Finzi’s writing responds immediately to the text. The result is a work that does not feel formally strong in musical terms, and Partington’s interpretation did not highlight many of its structural downbeats.

Following these two demanding items, Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra provided
a welcome palate cleanser. The Philharmonia rose to the technical challenge of the piece admirably,
bringing the first part of the concert to an end in a brilliant and rousing fashion.

Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, written as a kind of Requiem for his friend, Christian Berard, takes the form
of a series of relatively brief vignettes capturing a wide range of contrasting moods to illustrate the
sections of the text. This was a detailed and well controlled performance characterised by tight
ensemble from the chorus and some exquisite pianissimo singing. Watts was, once again, excellent
and Partington managed to marshal the rather fragmented nature of the piece to build towards a
convincing and emotionally compelling climax: a concert of highs and not so highs brought to a satisfying conclusion.

Elizabeth Watts – Soprano
The Three Choirs Festival Chorus
Philharmonia Orchestra
Adrian Partington – Conductor

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