What does it take to convey a narrative? For Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, whose largely forgotten Symphony no. 2, “Odysseus” was performed at the Three Choirs Festival on 31st July, the answer to that question was wholly dependent on words. Lots of words, to the extent that, despite its hour-long duration, it was the quantity and quality of the text that proved far more memorable than almost any of the music. This was a pity, because the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Three Choirs Festival Chorus were clearly doing their utmost both to give some sense of shape to the work and to inject into its torrent of verbiage some life and personality.

Guy Johnston and Samuel Hudson
© Michael Whitefoot

Their efforts were in vain, since Gibbs’ genteel musical language couldn’t do justice to the range and implications locked away in the text, giving the impression of treading water through large chunks of narration. Indeed, the choir could have been singing about pretty much anything, save for a couple of occasions when the words encroached on tangible events, such as a storm during the first movement, and a strangely frivolous sequence turning the inebriated Cyclops into an oom-pah refrain peppered with hiccups. As for the rest, it was exhausting to hear such a relentless flood of undifferentiated, characterless music; oblivion seems entirely the right fate for this oddity.

The other two works articulated infinitely more arresting emotional narratives in shorter time spans and with no words whatsoever. John Ireland’s The Forgotten Rite tapped into a rich vein of mythical and supernatural nostalgia. Akin to the Welsh concept of ‘hiraeth’ – though for a place and history more imagined than real – the intensity of Ireland’s emotional response was undeniable. Initially sleepy, balmy and laden with wistfulness, the music pushed on to majestic, harmonically complex heights cut through with impressionistic glimpses of something unutterably marvelous. The Philharmonia’s sensitive treatment of the piece was perfect, allowing its gorgeous, ravishing core to glow brightly without ever becoming exaggerated.

The greatest power of the evening came from the Cello Concerto ascribed to, but only partly completed by, Herbert Howells. The first movement was evidently finished by Howells; the second needed to be orchestrated (by Christopher Palmer), while the third is a new composition from Howell’s sketches by musicologist Jonathan Clinch. Composed sporadically as a response to his son’s death, we will never know Howells’ ultimate intentions for this work, but as presented here, Clinch’s last movement sounded extremely suspect and out of place: a Walton-esque essay in exuberance, as if attempting to pretend or shy away from the raw pain captured elsewhere.

Guy Johnston and Samuel Hudson conducting the Philharmonia
© Michael Whitefoot

Apropos: the first two movements were both stunning in the scale of grief they communicated. The opening Fantasia projected the sense of an instrument that didn’t really know (or perhaps care) where it was going, but that it simply needed to go, needed to be active, to do anything but stop. Performed with poignant delicacy by soloist Guy Johnston, this was contrasted by enormous, uncomfortable climaxes given to the orchestra (during which the cello fell silent), each of which felt deeply pained at its apex and darkly troubled in its wake. These parallel expressive strands were amalgamated in the following Threnody, the cello now embedded within the orchestra’s ruminations. For all its apparent gentleness, this was tangled, even gnarled music, anguished and angry, though the exquisite way conductor Samuel Hudson navigated its subsequent falling back into soft lyricism felt if anything more excruciating. Nowhere in the concert was narrative conveyed more forcefully than here, with Howells’ brooding, broken music fighting to keep singing in spite of everything.