Over the centuries, the Three Choirs Festival has developed a commendable trait in presenting the very best in English choral music; in more recent years the Festival has been committed to resurrecting once popular works that have been considered worthy of reassessment and, following on from last year’s performance of George Dyson’s Canterbury Pilgrims, this year the lot fell to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s once massively popular Song of Hiawatha. As a composer, a first-rate student of Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is now almost entirely forgotten and unfamiliar to audiences and musicians alike, save for the loyal collectors of Hyperion’s Romantic Violin and Piano Concerto series in both of which his music features. Some ageing choral singers that may have performed Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in their youth might recollect the work, but sadly there can’t be many left that recall Sir Malcolm Sargent’s huge performances with dancers, actors and gargantuan choruses in costume, that took place annually at the Royal Albert Hall.
Despite knowing the work only from recordings, in live performance I was most impressed by Coleridge-Taylor’s command of choral forces and the evocation of mood, sentiment and balance between choir and orchestra. It must be acknowledged that, whether Gloucester, Hereford or Worcester, these vast and resonant cathedral acoustics are not necessarily the best in which to hear works of this kind, but it is much better that this excellent music should be given the chance to breathe, than fester on a publisher’s dusty shelf. I would suggest, however, that of the work’s three parts – Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure (each composed as the result of a commission to extend the work) – the first and third are the most musically and dramatically satisfying.
Of the three soloists tenor Robin Tritschler was easily the most accomplished; a strong voice, secure from top to bottom and perfectly clear in tone and diction, he sensitively applied colouring suitable to the mood of music and words, and offered a glorious performance in his extended solo “Onaway! Awake, beloved!” Soprano Hye-Youn Lee appeared to possess a strong voice, certainly, but in an acoustic such as Gloucester Cathedral, an over-developed vibrato does not communicate the music or text appropriately – a powerful vibrato is also not a substitute for overlooking artistic subtlety. Most unfortunate was bass Benedict Nelson who, despite possessing an absolutely beautiful and clear voice with a rich, warm tone (not unlike a young Bryn Terfel), appeared to have difficulty with balance against the orchestra and was sometimes rendered almost completely inaudible.
The chorus, for whom the music is almost relentless, gave a stunning performance. There were some minor issues in the lower registers of each voice type when pitted against the orchestra, but overall the diction, balance and choral unity was extremely impressive. In particular the brief unaccompanied sections such as “Thus the gentle Chibiabos” revealed a choral sensitivity that might be the envy of any professional or amateur choir. In telling the story, the chorus held the audience’s attention completely, spurred on by Coleridge-Taylor’s wonderfully vivid characterisations. Directed by Peter Nardone, the Phiharmonia Orchestra gave an excellent account of the work; well balanced with many beautifully played exposed instrumental solos. The strings also were a unified body of well controlled sound.
The work itself does sag rather in the middle movement, The Death of Minnehaha, but Coleridge-Taylor never really expected to expand the work beyond Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast and the performers on this occasion met its challenges with conviction. The closing movement, Hiawatha’s Departure, was extremely entertaining with a captivating account of the coming of Christians to America beautifully played and sung. Overall, I feel that this is exactly the sort of performance that this music deserves – when guaranteed a sympathetic audience and a devoted orchestra and chorus, nothing remains except to relax and enjoy the benefits of one of the world’s greatest choral festivals.
Though next year’s festival in Worcester carries with it no specifically unusual repertoire like the aforementioned Dyson or Coleridge-Taylor, I eagerly look forward nonetheless to Elgar’s Apostles which, in his hometown of Worcester, will no doubt be an experience loved by players, chorus and audience alike.
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