A second scorching day in Hereford at the Three Choirs Festival concluded with another excellent concert.

Sarah Connolly © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly
© Peter Warren

Before an audience that filled the cathedral to capacity, the Philharmonia Orchestra assembled on the platform and a warm welcome was given to conductor Peter Nardone.

The concert opened with John Ireland’s evocative orchestral opus A London Overture. Despite being a composer of excellent ability in his own right, he is now fundamentally remembered for a few songs, some solo piano pieces and a piano concerto – and, principally, for having been Benjamin Britten’s composition tutor at the Royal College of Music.

Beginning life in 1934 as a brass band test-piece entitled Comedy Overture, A London Overture was revised and re-orchestrated for orchestra in 1936 at the request of Adrian Boult for a Proms concert, and quickly became one of Ireland’s most enduring and popular orchestral works. Filled with inventive orchestration and catchy tunes from the outset as well as its beautiful solo horn lament for Ireland’s friend Percy G. Bentham (who died unexpectedly under tragic circumstances in June 1936), it is now hard to see why the work has been so long overlooked in regular concert seasons. The Philharmonia tackled the score with aplomb and, beautifully paced by Nardone, gave a stirring performance that was met with great applause.

Following this the mood softened into a dreamy haze and the audience drifted on the gently billowing sound waves of Delius’ choral masterpiece, Sea Drift. Composed between 1903 and 1904, Sea Drift received its première in 1906 in Germany. It seems that Delius is a composer who divides both musicological and audience opinion – one either loves him or hates him – my personal leaning is towards intense admiration, and I consider much of his work to be amongst the finest and most original ever set down on paper. In the case of Sea Drift, a setting of the devastating Walt Whitman poem beginning “Once, Paumanock...”, Delius displays his extraordinary ability to evoke climate and the mood of nature, and this work (as well as On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and The Walk to the Paradise Garden) might be considered the heat of the sun written down.

In this performance of Delius’ sun-bathed score, no weakness from any quarter pervaded to spoil the view imagined by Whitman’s heart-breaking text. The Festival Chorus were unanimous in strength, delicacy and interpretation throughout, and though sometimes slightly overpowered by the orchestra I am confident that here the fault lies with the cathedral acoustic and not the artistic standard of the singers. Baritone soloist James Rutherford was equally impressive, his warm, rich tone and excellent diction as perfect a vehicle for this work as either of the other two performances I have heard this past season: Roderick Williams with the Hallé, and Bryn Terfel with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, both performances conducted by Sir Mark Elder.

The orchestra also excelled in Delius’ inspired scoring, soaking in the evocative rhythmic ebb and gentle flow of a music rich and deep in a harmonic style immediately recognisable as Delius.

Following a much-needed interval (the cathedral chairs afford all the luxurious comfort of the wrack), the audience returned for the final large work of the evening, Elgar’s The Music Makers.

It is perhaps a shame that the concert did not end with the Delius or an encore of the Ireland, as in several ways this work is the weakest of the three. There has been academic debate as to whether Elgar ever set a first-rate text, and Arthur O’Shaghnessy’s poem The Music Makers is potentially an example of a second-rate poem. The music also is curious, peppered heavily throughout with quotations from Elgar’s earlier works, including especially the Enigma Variations, Gerontius and the symphonies. However, the work features all of Elgar’s trademarks – flawless orchestration, expertly crafted harmony and both luscious choral and solo vocal writing.

A stirring performance was achieved and alto soloist Sarah Connolly served as an extra special treat, her vocal sensitivities, impressive vocal range and power placing her amongst the best singers currently available. Peter Nardone paced the music beautifully and coaxed from chorus and orchestra a dynamic range that might have been the envy of any professional or amateur chorus. Elgar’s inclusion of the organ in his larger works is always a boon and in this instance the cathedral instrument might have shaken life into even the most ancient and deaf audience members, the floor and my seat rumbling along with the heavy bass.

The pianissimo close of the final bars sent the audience out into the still-warm evening streets, but not before presenting to the orchestra, the chorus, Miss Connolly and Mr Nardone their rapturous applause.