Half of the Three Choirs Festival concert on 30th July brought something of a challenge. The problem was substance – or, rather, the lack of it. Dobrinka Tabakova’s Centuries of Meditations started out like the underscore of a TV advert – all minimalistic string washes and chirping cherubs – whereupon it briefly alluded to chant and organum and a cinematic form of triadic radiance, before ending much as it started. John Rutter, on the other hand, co-opted the lush post-Romantic stylings of a Maurice Jarre film score for his choral work-cum-violin concerto Visions. The picture he painted was as primary-coloured as it was overflowing with politeness. The challenge with both these works was their overabundance of ingratiating, supercharged saccharine sweetness. By the interval we were in desperate need of something substantial – and more genuinely imaginative.

Samuel Hudson and Joshua Ellicott
© Michael Whitefoot

This came with an impressively powerful rendition of Britten’s intense and, at times, hilarious 1948 cantata Saint Nicolas. Another challenge the evening faced was consistently uneven singing from the children in the Worcester Cathedral Choir, but this was mitigated by soloist Joshua Ellicott, whose embodiment of Nicolas was not only stunningly vivid but also remarkably relatable – all the more surprising considering the implausibility of some of his mythical exploits. He became intricately melded to the drama being articulated by the Philharmonia Orchestra, singing with such fiery potency it was hard to believe the character had evolved from this into the benign, innocuous figure of Santa Claus.

Conductor Samuel Hudson nicely took Nicolas’ story at face value, attacking it with exactly the right combination of solemnity, playfulness and serenity, turning him into a kind of holy Till Eulenspiegel. This served to ramp up (though never exaggerate) the work’s extremes and wide stylistic shifts. Thus, the alternately serious and spirited opening was practically ripped apart at Nicolas’ blazing first entrance, while the various ostinatos upon which Britten builds many of the sections – including the unexpected waltz that materialises in the tale of Nicolas’ birth and the comical passage recounting the hero’s resurrection of “the pickled boys” – conveyed a restless enthusiasm that was impossible to resist. Especially memorable was the sequence describing the stormy sea voyage to Palestine, beginning as a lilting quasi-sea shanty, with the Philharmonia slowly adding weight and portentousness to generate real awe and terror. The conclusion was more powerful still, with Nicolas’ subsequent solo sung over a strikingly expressive deep drum roll.

Samuel Hudson conducts the Philharmonia at Worcester Cathedral
© Michael Whitefoot

Throughout, the performance was at its most impressive whenever Nicolas took centre stage, throwing the spotlight back onto Ellicott. He transformed the confession of Nicolas’ devotion to God into a gorgeous, emotionally charged aria. The conclusion, as he hears and embraces his encroaching death, was blisteringly passionate. The orchestra beautifully mirrored his gradual transition from white-hot ardour to gentle, intimate acceptance.

It’s sobering to reflect how a piece much more than half a century old had been able to connect and communicate with so much more authentic invention and originality than music composed in the last few years. The Three Choirs Festival is never going to be a showcase for genuinely challenging contemporary music, but examples like this suggest that the only things audiences demand from new music are blank, shining surfaces. Britten’s Saint Nicolas is a cogent reminder that this is not, and never has been, good enough.