Three Choirs festival review – poetic harmony resonates with the times

一世t’s part of the Three Choirs festival’s rich tradition that works by contemporary composers are commissioned to take their place alongside the major choral masterpieces written for the festival over almost three centuries. This year featured the premiere – postponed from last summer, as was the whole event – of Gabriel Jackson’s The World Imagined. Taking its title from Wallace Stevens’s poem Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour, the contemplative nature of Stevens’s idea that, in candlelight, the human imagination has the power to perceive something ineffable, perhaps divine, allowed Jackson to move towards a transcendent ending, with the final lines, “We make a dwelling in the evening air / In which being there together is enough”, taking on a particular resonance in the context of the pandemic.

While that single poem in itself might seem to offer ample scope, Jackson in fact sets an unusual range of writers – Samuel ha-Nagid, Giacomo Leopardi, Doris Kareva, Kenneth White, Saint Ambrose and Walt Whitman as well as Stevens – to create an extended work in five continuous movements of some 45 分钟. Interest lies in Jackson’s contrasting of musical and philosophical extremes, where the grandeur of the universe, what Leopardi called the “supernal silence” of the sky and its potential for heaven, invokes both awe and the realisation that man’s place in this world is as a mere grain of sand.

In the Estonian Doris Kareva’s words, translated by Tiina Aleman, lies the hint of existential threat of global scorching but also the essentially fragile balance between life and death. At the heart of the work, Jackson sets Kenneth White, the Brittany-based Scot, giving his paean to the “ultimate unlettered light” to the tenor soloist, his utterances echoed by the chorus. The latter, having learned the score in what can only have been testing circumstances, dealt ably with its demands, while the orchestral writing – in particular the wind solos – played by musicians of the Philharmonia orchestra often came across vividly in the cathedral acoustic. It was a disappointment then that Nick Pritchard’s fine tenor was too often submerged, though this did unintentionally serve as a kind of metaphor for these times.

This festival commission puts Jackson in august company. At Worcester, 在 1899, the young Samuel Coleridge-Taylor conducted the premiere of his Solemn Prelude while Edward Elgar conducted his Enigma Variations in that same concert. Pairing the two pieces again – only the Coleridge-Taylor’s second outing – conductor David Hill ensured a vibrant sense of occasion and history revisited.