On Tuesday evening the Three Choirs Festival was treated to a first performance, a second performance and – in all likelihood – a millionth performance. It’s possible Elgar’s Enigma Variations hasn’t quite been played that many times, though it may as well have been, considering how conductor David Hill approached the piece: familiarity breeding not so much contempt as complacency.

David Hill conducts the Philharmonia
© Michael Whitefoot

To be fair, the performance was bookended very nicely, the Philharmonia giving a beautifully subtle, delicately pained rendition of the Theme, and an energetic Finale. In between, however, there was an absent-mindedness to the music, as if it were the product of something half-remembered being dredged from dark recesses of the memory. Worcester Cathedral’s acoustic didn’t help in this respect, blurring the details of Elgar’s more spritely material, but nonetheless the vagueness of Hill’s interpretation was striking and strange. The most strident sequences won through – W.M.B., Troyte and G.R.S. were all fittingly rousing, though even here there was the sense of an orchestra being forced to hold back, forbidden to unleash fire. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Dorabella lacked her usual delicate sprightliness while Nimrod was the epitome of blandness. Countering this was a splendid account of B.G.N. – deeply moving – though this left one all the more frustrated at how inert was the rest of the work. A million performances or not, Elgar needs more focus than this.

Gabriel Jackson’s new work The World Imagined was plagued by similar problems of inertia, though for compositional rather than interpretational reasons. Drawing on texts by, among others, Samuel Ha-Nagid, Doris Kareva, Walt Whitman, St Ambrose and Wallace Stevens, Jackson’s intentions appear to have been to create an extended paean to light and creation. This was certainly abundantly evident in the glittering fanfare with which it began, and the way the music opened up into a slow, expansive statement festooned with evocations of birds and animals to left and right. What was most remarkable about this opening section, though, wasn’t its details but its structure: almost like one enormous phrase unfolding, never stopping, as if bathed in warmth.

Nick Pritchard, David Hill, the Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the Philharmonia
© Michael Whitefoot

Perhaps it was just too much of a good thing, but this aspiration to establish an atmosphere of ecstatic reverie persisted for most of the work’s 45-minute duration. Its radiance began to tire, its brightness became dull, and its staunch avoidance of dissonance – almost at all costs, aside from a few token nods in the third movement – came to sound less like peace and joy than a fearful walking on eggshells. By the time it reached its denouement – no more or less climactic than anything that had gone before (and with more than a few echoes of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast) – its over-simplistic narrowness of expression made Jackson’s imagined world seem very small indeed. The remarkable, radical texts deserved so much better than cold, calculated warmth and formulaic wonder.

Why on earth Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s short Solemn Prelude has had to wait 120 years to receive a second performance is anyone’s guess. Premiered in this very venue during this very festival back in 1899, one imagines the piece must have made just as stunning an impact as it did on this occasion. At times curiously bringing to mind Rachmaninov, the piece struck an interesting balance between solemnity and passion, Coleridge-Taylor’s lengthy melodic strands bedecked in lush romantic clothing. Rhythmically gentle, all soft edges and curved lines, it suited the cathedral’s acoustic perfectly, though in hindsight, coming at the start of the concert, it set the bar too high for what was to follow. Here was nothing but clarity, avoiding all traces of indulgence, communing a gorgeous, immediate, and very personal musical power. 

**111