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22 August

Three Choirs Festival – Review of Adrian Partington’s ‘Damnation of Faust’ by OV Clive Marks

We are delighted to have this review sent in from OV Clive Marks (S 69-74) of OV conductor Adrian Partington (S 66-76)’s “Damnation of Faust” performed during the Three Choirs Festival held at Gloucester Cathedral, on 27th July 2019.

“It was shameful that I had spent five years at King’s, had a love of choral music and yet I had never been to the Three Choirs Festival.  That was about to be corrected.

My husband and I had booked a visit to the Vale Wildlife Hospital, outside Tewkesbury, with whom we had done some training in hedgehog care earlier in the year, and I wondered when and where the Three Choirs Festival was this year, just in case we could combine the visits.  By sheer good luck, the event would be in Gloucester cathedral and the booking opened to the general public the following morning.  My luck increased when I saw that the opening concert would be my favourite piece to perform, Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust”.  My good luck then went through the roof on realising that its conductor would be Adrian Partington, O.V.  The following morning, I was onto the booking as soon as it opened, nabbing two seats of the tiered seating over the West door, and by lunchtime all the decent tickets had sold out.

It is now 45 years since I left King’s and for that final year, 1973-74, I was in charge of School House’s junior dormitory (me and 17 boys from the Removes) and Adrian had been one of “my boys”.  We did not see each other again until the following event. About 20 years ago, Adrian went to London to take a rehearsal of the London Symphony Chorus while our chorus master was away.  I intended introducing myself to him after the rehearsal.  However, during the rehearsal he needed to berate us basses, for failing to make exactly the sound that he wanted, and started to tell us off.  As he turned to face us, he spotted me grinning back at him and froze, mid-sentence, before rapidly regaining his composure and berating us as before.

Today would be my chance to have the thrill of watching him conduct this fantastic piece, which requires him to command such huge forces.  I let him know that I would be there and promised him that, despite knowing the score very well, I would resist the temptation to sing along during the concert.
We arrived in the cathedral well before the rehearsal and I was able to have a word with him.  He was so excited at the prospect of conducting this piece for the first time and we had a quick chat about some of the more fun parts of the piece.  We could easily have chatted for much longer about this piece but he had work to do.

Wandering around the cathedral, we soon realised that many seats would have to watch the performance on screens and we wondered how the sound would be in the transepts and other remote corners of the building.  Inevitably, the acoustics of the cathedral muffled some of the details but the overall effect was stunning.

Whenever Adrian needed to stop the rehearsal, he would give very clear directions as to what he required from everyone.  These were acted on immediately and this enabled Adrian to conduct with great reserve, the mark of a great conductor, as all the preparation has been done.  During the performance, just a quick glance at the musicians was all that was needed to bring out exactly what had been rehearsed.  Having performed this piece with various conductors and orchestras, including this one, it was clear that the Philharmonia orchestra has great regard for Adrian’s musicianship.

We had booked a pre-concert supper in the King’s dining hall which brought back memories of doing the same at our own King’s and we got to chat to various others who were going to the concert, just as we had done in our hotel the previous evening.  It seemed that most of the people that we had spoken to over the last 24 hours would be going to the concert, some having come from America for the whole festival.  By an amazing coincidence, the people sitting directly in front of us were old friends from the London Symphony Chorus, with whom I had performed this piece many times.  This was going to be an evening of fabulous music among old and new friends.

The excited, pre-concert buzz around the cathedral close was palpable and soon we were in our lofty seats, with a grand view down onto the stage, hoping for a good balance of sound from all the performers. The Dean came on to do the usual announcements and prayer before inviting everyone to welcome to the stage “Our director of music, the best of any cathedral in the country, Adrian Partington”.  Wow, what an introduction and the audience gave him a rapturous welcome, showing just how much Adrian is loved and respected in the cathedral and the wider musical world.  I suddenly found myself experiencing a new emotion: great joy at the achievement of one of “my boys”.

Very rapidly, we realised that the presence of the audience had improved the acoustics and we could now hear so many details from all parts of the orchestra.  Faust has a lot to say for himself throughout the piece and Peter Hoare was definitely aiming for a semi-staged performance.  He may have been trying to test his pitch, but his habit of putting his hand next to his face would occasionally muffle his voice.  This was a particular problem in his dream about Marguerite when his heart-wrenching cry of her name, one of the emotional highpoints of the piece, got completely lost into the palm of his hand.
As the piece progressed, he seemed to develop problems with his voice as he would more frequently produce wince-inducing shrieks on his top notes. Perhaps he was just wrapped up in the emotion, and impending damnation, of his character.

Naturally, I was keen to hear how the Festival Chorus coped with the many details that the score demands, with so many off-beat stresses and forte-pianos and they were absolutely brilliant.  Being such a fan of this piece, having once taken the score on holiday as my reading material, I even found myself breathing in the same place as the chorus.

This is a real showcase for the men (yes, I do include the lady tenor amongst them) and Adrian had had the good sense to put the men at the front, with the ladies being posted all the way up to the top, as the angelic host, assisted by the choristers on the chancel screen in the final scene.  They did a fantastic job of the various characters that they had to play: reverent Christian; drunks, accompanying Brander (David Ireland) in his song about a rat and Mephistopheles in his song about a flea; students and soldiers in the cave of Auerbach.

Christopher Purves played a brilliantly malevolent Mephistopheles who was not going to allow Faust a moment of peace.  At one point, he found a musical opportunity to poke fun at Adrian, to which Adrian responded in good spirit. The whole chorus also had many fabulous numbers and every single one was performed in a different style with such flair and accomplishment.  This gave great colour to the performance and really tripped the story along with great gusto, sending us all out for the interval with a good thirst for the bar.

After the interval, it was the time for Marguerite (Susan Bickley) to make her poignant entry and to woo us as a vulnerable ingenue.  What we got was more of a strident school ma’am who was not going to be messed around with, especially when she got to her top notes.  For those, she would pump up her lungs and hit them with a vocal sledgehammer: more can belto than bel canto.  Those were decidedly ugly moments but one just had to ignore them and focus on the rest, which was fine.  Meanwhile the men of the chorus, who were meant be echoing their student songs from afar, were exquisitely accurate in sounding as if they were singing from outside the cathedral, even thought we could see them singing on stage.

The build-up to Faust’s damnation was played with chilling accuracy thanks to Adrian bravely stretching the tempi well beyond those of a normal performance.  This created a real sense of impending doom which the performers responded to consummately. For the Pandemonium chorus, it is a brave conductor who instructs his tenors and basses to wait so long before standing up as they then have to hit their entry as soon as they have stood up.  The effect is a dramatic entry of the chorus who cast Faust into the abyss of Hell and serenade the triumph of Mephistopheles in Berlioz’s invented, demonic language.  The chorus got rather drowned by the orchestra in the first part but came to the fore for the rest of this scene, getting louder and louder.  Only the finale of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand demands as much volume and now was Adrian’s moment to completely lose his conductor’s reserve, by waving his arms in the air above his head and squeezing every last decibel from the men.  The effect was both spine-tingling and tear-jerking.

A final chorus by the men evoked the terrors into which Faust had now been cast and, with a few shifts of key, the ladies (and a counter-tenor) completely changed the mood for the apotheosis of Marguerite.  Whoever the lady in the chorus was who sang the solo cry of “Margarita”, she captured the vulnerability of Marguerite’s soul with wonderful tenderness.

After more than two hours, with the audience having been taken through every emotion, the piece came to its tranquil end and Adrian held his baton aloft, to hold that final silence, for what felt like ages and nobody moved.  As soon as Adrian lowered his baton, the audience burst into rapturous applause and I had to grab my handkerchief, as my cheeks had gone very soggy.

We managed to find Adrian and I wanted to know how he felt about having conducted this piece for the first time.  With boyish enthusiasm, he bounced around telling us that “I just want to do it all over again.  It is a comedy, a tragedy and everything else.  It’s wonderful”.  Such infectious enthusiasm has taken Adrian to wonderful heights of his profession and it will continue to endear him to music-lovers for many years to come.  BRAVO, Adrian.

(Photo courtesy of Clive Marks)