For its penultimate evening concert, the Three Choirs Festival turned to four pieces by composers whose lives overlapped not only each other but also the First World War. There was no explicit connection between the pieces, though they articulated two contrasting modes of optimism. To summarise them as ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ would be oversimplistic, though this distinction is part of the story.

Timothy Ridout © Kaupo Kikkas
Timothy Ridout
© Kaupo Kikkas

Walton’s Viola Concerto is delightful in the way it indulges in allusions to convention – even throwing in an unmistakable Baroque descending chord sequence at one point – only to sidestep and dance around them. For all its playfulness, however, soloist Timothy Ridout teased out and focused upon elements of melancholy that pepper the work, easily forgotten or missed entirely in the wake of Walton’s trademark ebullient gallops that appear not to have a care in the world. It was essential that this lead was taken by Ridout, as the musical argument throughout very clearly originates with the viola, Adrian Partington and the Philharmonia Orchestra enthusiastically following and supporting him.

The result was a poignantly cast rendition of the concerto, in which its impassioned, at times radical, outbursts fed into this darker undercurrent of feeling. It proved to be superbly effective in the final movement – which avoids an obvious ‘finale’ demeanour in favour of a broader scope, qualifying extravert joy with moving episodes of introspection – particularly the closing moments, Ridout tilting Walton’s final chord from minor to major in such an understated way that it became the most modest of triumphs.

Despite the title, absolutely nothing qualifies the upbeat merriment of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Philharmonia’s performance was the way they suddenly sounded as if they’d been reduced to chamber proportions, executing the work’s melodic strands – each one embedded within waves of flurries – as if they were as light as a feather. Constantly harmonically secure yet sounding utterly free and unpredictable, it was less like listening to music than watching tendrils of perfume tumbling in the air.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms established a decidedly different musical language from these two pieces. Not only did Partington not shy away from the work’s gravity, but he positively embraced it, making the most of its three-stage progression: cry for help, response leading to safety, and thanksgiving. As such, he allowed the Three Choirs Festival Chorus full rein to unleash such an intense, overwhelming outpouring that the scale of its desperation was indisputable. Similarly, Partington emphasised the laboured quality that permeates the second movement, the first signs of the austerity that ultimately dominates the work. The effect this had on the last movement – surely one of the most fascinating, from a psychological perspective, of all alleluias – was deeply thought-provoking. The solemnity of Stravinsky’s articulation of praise, perhaps informed in part by his Orthodox upbringing, made one wonder whether here were the seeds of musical-religious expression that, fifty years later, would find voice in the work of Arvo Pärt.

At first, Adrian Partington’s strict adherence to the pulse in all three movements of the Symphony of Psalms gave one cause for concern, yet it led to a performance that was revelatory: painful, passionate and above all personal.

Whether or not her setting of Psalm 130, completed in 1917, was inspired by the events of the First World War is debatable, yet what is beyond all doubt is the incredible compositional vision and skill of Lili Boulanger, who died (of tuberculosis) 100 years ago at the tragically young age of just 24. Psalm 130 was the last of three psalm settings Boulanger composed during her short life. Her response to the Psalmist’s cries could hardly be more dramatic, which on this occasion seemed to threaten untold damage to Hereford Cathedral’s very foundations. Arising from the most abyssal musical depths, a mess of tangled harmonies and pulseless groping for some semblance of light, the choir – in contrast to the Stravinsky – now gave the impression not of an individual’s supplications but the large-scale imploring of an entire community, encapsulated in an enormous upswell of anguished clamour. Mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey acted as a spokesperson and focal point for this community, her repeated cries of “qui donc pourra tenir” (Who can stand?) suggesting a palpable fear lurking beneath their universal complaint.

The work’s subsequent turn-on-a-dime shift from distress to optimism was mesmerising, enhanced by a small group of choristers from Gloucester Cathedral who joined Harvey. Only a few moments before, all hope had apparently been lost, but now choir, soloists and orchestra, as one, transported us heavenward in an abounding paean of confident trust. Those earlier depths, not yet forgotten, had become gloriously irrelevant.