It’s hardly surprising to encounter quintessentially British music at the Three Choirs Festival. Yet last night’s opening concert at Worcester Cathedral offered a progression of perspectives that caused one to reflect on what that quintessence was, is and, looking forward, should be. An important subtext running through these reflections was the way Britons see themselves in relation to others.

<i>A Child of our Time</i> at the Three Choirs Festival © Michael Whitefoot
A Child of our Time at the Three Choirs Festival
© Michael Whitefoot

Elgar’s setting of Psalm 48 Great is the Lord – begun in 1910 and completed in its orchestral version three years later – dates from a time when the notion of a ‘world war’ was just that, a notion. As such, the work displays, if not complacency, then at least an extent of confidence that can only manifest itself with such sure-footedness in times when conflict is a distant memory. Elgar treated the text like a kind of mini-oratorio, compartmentalising it into sections of highly differentiated modes of expression. As its opening bars rang out, one was instantly reminded of just how significant Elgar’s music was in defining a very particular kind of ‘British’ sound, intimately bound-up in people’s associations with national identity. Though in terms of both style and content the work now seems seriously dated, it nonetheless spoke loudly to how musically and spiritually Britain once thought and felt. As the Festival Chorus roared and the Philharmonia Orchestra pounded, beneath its surface pomposity it was hard not to still feel mildly impressed at its stately sense of triumph.

The remainder of the concert was not so innocent. Composed during World War II, there’s a double-layer of metaphor in Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Obviously, the sea acts as a kind of behavioural ‘snapshot’, capturing an aspect of humanity in its storms, splashes and serenity. Yet that word ‘interlude’ is highly significant; these pieces may have been extracted from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, but in this new context they nonetheless retain a vital sense of occupying points between a much bigger implied narrative. In this performance there were times when it was tough not only to work through the implications of these metaphors but even to savour the music from a more superficial angle. Conductor Peter Nardone opted to take the work at a pace that might almost be described as ‘leisurely’ if it didn’t seem so eggshell-walkingly cautious. This caused “Sunday Morning” to feel like the hazy hangover aftermath of a rather too rambunctiously indulgent Saturday night, while “Moonlight” perpetually sounded as though it were poised to pass out. However, Nardone’s over-cautious approach worked better in “Dawn”, diminishing the clarity of the pulse to create an altogether more impressionistic rendition of the piece that brought the painting of JMW Turner to mind. All the same, the orchestra audibly struggled to hold together at such lethargic tempi, sounding scrappy and ostensibly under-rehearsed. But not, thank goodness, in the climactic “Storm”, where the brief moments of light that glance through the centre of the movement became shafts of ecstasy that temporarily caused the ongoing tempest to be forgotten.

Britten’s vision of British quintessence shifts between focussing on the individual and the local community – characterised as short-sighted and judgemental – and the reciprocal damage that can ensue. It’s a harsh but honest appraisal, yet it pales beside the enormity of the critique in the final work of the concert, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time.

Composing at a similar time to Britten, Tippett explodes the critical purview to that of all oppressed people on a global scale. Though inspired by the devastating Kristallnacht pogrom levelled against the Jews by the Nazis in 1938, Tippett deliberately made A Child of Our Time open and non-specific, enabling it to decry persecution of all times and places. Here, Nardone’s tentative approach was again problematic; the subsections in each of the work’s three parts were made to feel disconnected, even disassociated. Following Tippett’s philosophically- and poetically-loaded train of thought can be tricky at the best of times, and it was in no way aided by Nardone’s stop-start approach, which only made the music sound more indirect. Yet the four soloists brought a raw emotional potency to the performance that often cut straight to the heart. Sarah Fox and Andrew Tortise, in particular, showed little of the polite reserve displayed by the Festival Chorus (which has no place in this piece), tearing into their mother-son dialogue with a poignant, unaffected sense of despair. Despite its problems, the over-carefulness of this performance proved effective at the conclusion of the work, rendering its sense of hope provisional rather than safely assumed.

As arguments continue to rage in Britain about our relationship with those of other nations, races, cultures, beliefs and ideologies, Tippett’s music reminds us how easy it is unwittingly to slip-slide into discrimination and persecution. Britain is at her most quintessentially ‘great’ only when she heeds this vital adjuration.