After weeks of foul weather, this was more like it. Proper sunshine for a summer festival. Around Hereford Cathedral, watched over by a statue of Elgar draped in a fresh laurel wreath, Three Choirs Festival-goers enjoyed the warmth before venturing inside for equally sunny music. Even the yellow flowers framing the stage carried through the theme, setting off the golden centre-stage harp. This in turn shimmered in the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows.

David Hill © John Wood 2010
David Hill
© John Wood 2010

Debussy’s virtuosic piece was written to showcase a new type of harp by Pleyel, incorporating a revolutionary arrangement of strings, which was designed to overcome the complexities of playing chromatic music on the traditional Érard pedal instrument. Pleyel’s version didn’t in the end take over from the Érard, but the Danse sacrée et danse profane was nevertheless a delightful introduction to this concert, with its rocking, soothing rhythms and clever moves between keys. The harpist made her instrument sing with powerful gestures and plenty of drama, and was subtly backed by the strings of the Orchestra of the Swan – a youthful ensemble who always look as though they’re enjoying their craft.

In a tidy parallel, the harp also brought the concert to a close in the final moments of Fauré’s Requiem. In answer to criticisms that this work didn’t sufficiently express fear but was rather a ‘lullaby of death’, the composer asserted that this was how he viewed death, ‘as a welcome deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience.’ It creates moods of composed sorrow, calm, some terror too, but ultimately serenity. It was in good hands with the Three Choirs Festival Youth Choir, founded just a couple of years ago. Numbering merely around thirty, what they lacked in size on staging set for the massive adult Festival Chorus, with ranks of empty benches behind, they more than made up for in their beautiful, well-trained sound. Every voice counted. It made for a very pleasing combination of youthfulness, vitality and secure professionalism.

Baritone Marcus Farnsworth gave an assured statement in the Offertory, to be followed by the choir’s ethereal, floaty response. Soprano Katie Trethewey grew into the breath-defying Pie Jesu as the movement progressed. Impeccable control at the end led to an appreciative hush before proceedings resumed with the Agnus Dei. Toward the end of this, with the choir retracing their steps over ‘Requiem aeternam’, I noticed that every single eye was on conductor David Hill. The combination of crystal clear female voices and violin solo in the Sanctus was a highlight, as was the angelic In Paradisum. Again, there was then a reluctance to break the contemplative silence.

The triumph of the afternoon, though, was Dobrinka Tabakova’s specially-commissioned piece Centuries of Meditations. In Hereford Cathedral’s tiny Audley Chapel are four stained glass windows made by Tom Denny in 2009. Each one explores an aspect of local 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne’s philosophy, and Tabakova had taken sections of his poetry as her inspiration. The young British/Bulgarian composer was present to hear her work come to life, with the youthful chorus as an entirely appropriate vehicle. Taking the enthusiastic applause, she beamed like the sun and, with hand on heart, was clearly moved by the occasion. And rightly so.

This thoughtful and thought-provoking piece was dreamy in its unfolding. Interpreting the windows from left to right, the first movement reflects a celebration of nature, with life-affirming forward motion and a sense of bursting forth; the second emphasises the importance of faith, musing on the shining central cross through unaccompanied plainchant; the third is a meditation on love, with the window’s central figure bathed in a glow of light, ‘translated musically’, according to Tabakova, ‘as growing rich cluster chords, which radiate from a single note’; and the fourth depicts community, by means of a city (clearly Hereford itself as the Cathedral is seen in the distance), the work coming to a close with the development of a theme of bells and culminating in a joyous finale. The choir and orchestra were perfectly balanced and did full justice to this accessible new work. It was a privilege to witness the bringing together of windows, words and music in the most appropriate location, especially as even the weather was in tune. My lasting memory will be of this phrase of Traherne, sung with tenderness and clarity, the final sustained word continuing to shimmer with light and life before skittering up into an accomplished slide: ‘You are as prone to love as the sun to shine.’