Sir George Dyson (1883–1964) is now principally remembered by the generations of grown-up schoolchildren who sang his many songs for educational use, and more recently by church choirs and congregations for his religious music. Dyson’s orchestral oeuvre (which includes a Violin Concerto, a Symphony in G and a host of smaller concertante and chamber works) is lamentably overlooked – though, during his lifetime, this music was once enthusiastically championed by the leading artists of the day including the violinist Albert Sammons.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins © Sasha Gusov
Conductor Martyn Brabbins
© Sasha Gusov

Dyson’s relationship with the ancient Three Choirs Festival was firmly established in the 1930s and he composed a number of impressive works that received their première in Hereford and Worcester, including the choral masterpiece Nebuchadnezzar (Worcester, 1935).

On Wednesday night in the blistering heat of Hereford’s cathedral close, the massed, stately throng who make their musical pilgrimage to the Three Choirs Festival every year, assembled with eager anticipation to hear live one of Dyson’s greatest achievements and, whilst the Almighty saw fit to bake us, no solar deity could deter us from enthusiastically receiving this work of striking significance and explicit musical craftsmanship.

Premièred in Winchester in 1931, Dyson’s setting of selections from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, entitled The Canterbury Pilgrims, focuses not on the famous tales themselves, but rather on the people who give them. Split into a Prologue and twelve movements thereafter, the music endeavours to describe in detail the virtues and flaws in those assembled at the Tabard Inn, making ready to begin their pilgrimage to Canterbury, and includes a broad variety of colourful characters including a knight, a nun, a monk and a doctor of physic to name only four. Sin, vice and virtue aside, the Three Choirs Festival is the perfect forum for such a work when one considers that the characters depicted, rich and poor alike, are assembled all by their faith in God to make their humble pilgrimage to Canterbury to pray, and the audience of the festival journey hence to Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester cathedrals annually, called by their love of music and begin every concert with a prayer.

On the whole the performance was excellent; the Festival Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra and soloists Susan Gritton, Alan Oke and Simon Bailey all contributed to a memorable performance of this sadly overlooked opus. Conducted by Martyn Brabbins, presently one of the principal supporters and performers of British scores, the quality of performance was surely heighted by his informed reading.

It must be noted that performances of works employing large forces are difficult in any cathedral and problems of clarity and balance between orchestra and chorus can be a nightmare to negotiate. Furthermore, not every seat available in a cathedral packed to capacity is in a position of advantage, and my station on the west side quite close to the front meant I got a lot of French horn and organ – though it was clear that the orchestra were controlled excellently by Brabbins.

The Festival Chorus had a more difficult time of it, and problems of balance were highlighted during moments in which they were rather swept away by the orchestra or, given the large acoustic of the cathedral, got into a slight muddle over entries. However, the chorus displayed remarkably fine, tight singing during a cappella or lightly scored passages, and the opening of the Prologue, with its delicious choral harmonies, presented beautifully both Dyson’s and their own choral skill.

Regrettably, the soloists appeared to also endure some difficulty with the work. Tenor Alan Oke led the soloists initially in the Prologue and sang with excellent diction, but the higher notes in the more tasking solos evaded him and the voice displayed weakness. Despite this Oke presented a lyrical and committed performance. Soprano Susan Gritton’s shining moments in movements 4 and 9, “The Nun” and “The Wife of Bath” respectively, to me seemed laboured and did not encompass the same sense of lyrical flow, necessary humour or dramatic character as exemplified by Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny in Richard Hickox’s 1996 recording of the work for Chandos. This was disappointing as I was truly hoping for something special from Miss Gritton, having heard her give so many exemplary performances in the past – perhaps this was just not her piece. The star of the soloists was bass-baritone Simon Bailey, whose dramatic reading of his solos made for very entertaining listening.

To close, it is worth taking a moment to consider Dyson’s orchestral writing, which is extraordinarily colourful and skilled, using the instruments to their full advantage in presenting what ought to be one of the great English scores in a pastoral idiom. The music for the Prologue and the final closing passages is exceptionally beautiful and was played by the Philharmonia sympathetically.

The Three Choirs Festival team fully deserve to be sufficiently satisfied with themselves for presenting works such as this – the same may be said of last year’s performance of Elgar’s early cantata Caractacus – and for reminding us that there is an audience for these neglected treasures. I for one have already highlighted Coleridge-Taylor’s Song of Hiawatha scheduled for next year’s festival, and I urge all enthusiasts of British music to do the same.

***11