The date of the first – apparently Georgian – “Music Meeting” staged by the cathedral choirs of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester, remains a bit clouded; yet by 1719 evidence of its existence appears firm. It was probably initiated by Hereford: shortly after, Hereford’s Chancellor alludes to “a fortuitous and friendly proposal, between a few lovers of harmony, and brethren of the correspondent choirs, to commence an anniversary visit to be kept in turn.” 1715 – one year after the Hanoverians’ accession – is now adjudged the gathering’s most likely launch date: thus summer 2015 qualified as the 300th anniversary.

Paul Nilon, Sarah Connolly, Geraint Bowen and Neal Davies © Ash Mills
Paul Nilon, Sarah Connolly, Geraint Bowen and Neal Davies
© Ash Mills

Annually, the Three Cathedral Choirs’ concert – the evenings’ high point this year (in Bach) – remains a centrepiece of the week. But the festival overall retains the Victorian formula: a massed triple choral society, singing hefty oratorios; plus a host of morning and afternoon recitals. Not surprisingly, the magnificent Three Choirs Festival Chorus, performing over six of the seven main concerts in the cathedral nave, was at the heart of this tercentenary jamboree.

The host Director of Music designs each festival, backed by a supportive, active committee which delivered spectacular surprises, of which Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, superlatively conducted by the magisterial Jac van Steen, prefaced by the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, was surely the most dramatic: powerful, expressive, breathtakingly orchestrated (the percussion section excelling) and the more awesomely impressive because composed in 1946-8: scarcely a third of the way  through Messiaen’s career.

Three Choirs Festival Chorus © Ash Mills
Three Choirs Festival Chorus
© Ash Mills

As the 2015 festival’s Artistic Director, Geraint Bowen conducted three main events: first came a Dream of Gerontius that included deeply involving performances from Sarah Connolly and the resplendent Neal Davies, but especially from tenor Paul Nilon, an unusual last-minute replacement, who brought all the dramatic skills and plaintive appeal of his opera roles to the title role: thus Sanctus fortis gained an unusually pained, tragic demeanour, while much else yielded aching timbres, underscoring Gerontius’ Christ-recalling passion and emotional confusion. The choir made vicious demons, but it was their brilliant “Praise to the holiest”, prefaced by superb altos, which capped a memorable reading.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega
Baritone Roderick Williams launched the afternoon recitals with another surprise: the first time one had heard Elgar’s Sea Pictures sung by a broken voice. The effect was striking and characterful, though maybe not as alluring as if offered by, say, Connolly or Janet Baker. Vaughan Williams’s Four Last Songs, to mythologically-inspired words by his second wife, Ursula, were a revelation. The highlight was A Swift Radiant Morning, five settings of Charles Sorley by Rhian Samuel, a festival commission of great originality which calls for semi-spoken or even shouted effects from the soloist. They were written with Williams in mind, and Samuel’s oblique harmonies plus the explosive evocation of war by this young poet who died at Loos in 1915, aged 20, made a universal impression.

One under-appreciated feature of the Three Choirs is the number of commissions it engenders; at Hereford, at least half-a-dozen. Groups like Ensemble 360 (led by flautist Juliette Bausor), the Wihan Quartet or the Orlando Consort conjured up their own afternoon programmes; but Voces 8, added an Alec Roth choral première, the four-section Stargazer (words W.H. Davies and others), to their sequence including Gibbons, de Pearsall and Norwegian-born American Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi Caritas. The Sunday night service unveiled Prayer of Thomas Ken (“Glory to Thee, my God, this night”), by George Arthur, young winner of the Three Choirs 300th anniversary choral competition. The midweek Radio 3 broadcast introduced a newly-commissioned Evening Service by Bob Chilcott, in which the tender Nunc dimittis arguably outshone a dancing Magnificat. Anthony Powers added another desirable commission, his organ chorale prelude O Gott, du frommer Gott – with the chorale tune in the pedals – to a staggeringly polished, weighty morning recital by New York’s John Scott.

The outstanding 2015 commission, to my ears, came with Sarah Connolly’s end of week delivery of A Welsh Night, six settings of the poet Alun Lewis by German composer Torsten Rasch. The poetry (“Fine flame of silver birches flickers...”, “Black dog barking at the moon”) was endlessly absorbing. You could see why Rasch, who has produced three festival commissions, including the massive choral work A Foreign Field, in as many years, was drawn to it. The subtle independent piano part of accompanist Joseph Middleton played a major part in these gripping new songs’ success.

Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, and William Mathias’ bracing oratorio Lux Aeterna, allowed the other two cathedral music directors, Adrian Partington and Peter Nardone, to shine. Nardone encouraged the boys to blossom, whilst three solos in poems by St John of the Cross, Sarah Fox (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo) and the superb – if a fraction subdued – Claudia Huckle (contralto), explored some of the most touching music of the week, while tenor Robert Murray, baritone David Stout and bass Barnaby Rea lent Nielsen’s more lacklustre Hymnus amoris greater appeal than its endless cadencing merited.

Hereford Cathedral © Clare Stevens
Hereford Cathedral
© Clare Stevens
Partington’s Missa solemnis, maybe not quite equalling his superlative Gerontius at the last Gloucester festival, was magnificent at all key points, a splendid die-away of the Credo and a thrilling Sanctus (terrific opening bassoon) not least; the strings in the Benedictus sounded like viols. Bowen added a Verdi Requiem, abetted by Philharmonia brass, that was utterly resilient. Perhaps more absorbing was Sir Andrew Davis’ handling of Sir Arthur Bliss’s explosive Great War evocation Morning Heroes, where female voices in Li-Tai-Po’s almost Auden-like elegy shone against the savage masculine thundering of Homer and Walt Whitman.

Undoubtedly the week’s success was indebted to three orchestras: the Philharmonia, annually resident at the Three Choirs and unmatched at every turn; the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, which under Paul Daniel triumphed in those real rarities, Dukas’ La Peri and Florent Schmitt’s La tragédie de Salomé, equalling their elders; Daniel’s conducting of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was typically astute, the playing and mastery of savage rhythms by this young ensemble unfaultable; and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The last, conducted by Geraint Bowen in J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, led by a staggeringly fluent Evangelist, James Oxley, and the superlative bass-baritone Matthew Brook as Christ, with the three cathedral choirs, produced  the most miraculous achievement of the entire week.