By Clare Stevens

A century after the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which paved the way for British women to have the same parliamentary voting rights as men, the Hereford Three Choirs Festival chose the rarely-performed Mass in D by Dame Ethel Smyth, a leading light in the suffragette movement, as the main work in this year’s first evening concert.

And what a work it is! Like Verdi’s Requiem, it is operatic in scope, full of drama and contrast and vivid orchestral colour. Smyth wrote the Mass because she wanted to, rather than as the result of a commission, and had some difficulty in getting it performed, eventually enlisting the help of the royal family to secure a premiere by the Royal Choral Society in the Royal Albert Hall in 1893.

Here in Hereford, the Three Choirs Festival Chorus rose magnificently to the challenges posed by its musical complexities, sounding confident and committed throughout, responding with alacrity and passion to Geraint Bowen’s inspirational conducting. (Excellent TV coverage via screens around the cathedral means that audience as well as orchestra and chorus can sometimes see the conductor’s face.) When the quartet of solo singers had a slightly rocky moment in the ‘Credo’ (‘I believe’), the chorus swiftly got the performance back on track, with a simply thrilling transition from awed anticipation to jubilation at ‘Et expect resurrection mortuorum’ (‘And I look for the resurrection of the dead’).

Outstanding among the soloists was mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw, whose burnished sound brought real magic to the prayerful ‘Sanctus’. Her duet with bass Neal Davies in the ‘Gloria’ was eloquent and beautifully balanced. Soprano Eleanor Dennis and tenor Paul Nilon each had some lovely moments, in the ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ respectively.

At the heart of the Three Choirs Festival is the resident Philharmonia Orchestra, whose players clearly relished the symphonic sweep of this score, ranging from tempestuous to tranquil. Both they and the chorus also gave a committed performance of another rarity, John Ireland’s These things shall be, to open the concert, but it was Ethel Smyth’s eccentric but magnificent Mass that lingered in the memory.