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S & H Festival Report:

Cheltenham International Festival of Music 2002 15-20 July (PGW)

 


Cheltenham's venerable music festival is now under Michael Berkeley's artistic direction and contrives, rather successfully, to cater for all tastes in fair balance. It is based in one of England's most prestigious and elegant towns, its outreach extends to outlying Cotswold villages and many concerts are broadcast. During the last week we attended some of the main events at the Pitville Pump House and Town Hall (both boast excellent acoustics and ample free parking).

The model programme book is edited by Toby Smith. Cheap at 3, it is something of a collector's item, and thankfully has stylish, unfussy typography and clear black-on-white print. It carries all the information you could want, including many essays, a chronological chart of all the composers' dates, with brief biographical notes. There are succinct notes about the musicians participating (not the usual over-inclusive CVs!), a two page glossary of musical terms, maps for out of town venues (as far as Tetbury) and, at the bottom of every page, a Surf This suggestion of interesting websites to explore at home, compiled by Abigail Frymann (who used to write for S&H) and is the main contributor of interviews, essays and programme notes.

RAMEAU Les Incas du Perou & Pygmalion at Tewkesbury Abbey

Two of Rameau's shorter works made a superb double bill for Christian Curnyn's Early Opera Company, and they sounded well in Tewkesbury Abbey. The Norman nave, with its massive pillars, has a resonant acoustic but not excessively so, the sound surprisingly similar wherever one sat (I tried several positions), and suiting Rameau's subtle and always telling orchestration. Les Indes Galantes is an opera-ballet, with its sections set in various geographical locations, this Peruvian Deuxieme Entrée a dramatic story of forbidden love for an 'infidel' Christian Conquistador. In the final scene, there is an affecting trio of contrasting emotions, which foreshadows operatic innovations attributed to Gluck and Mozart and - much later - found in the famous ensembles in Italian opera. At the end, the thwarted Inca High Priest welcomes death, and is crushed by falling rocks from a volcanic eruption, all depicted vividly in a score which gathers pace and tension. Pygmalion is a delightful version of the Ovid myth of the sculptor condemned to fall in love with one of his creations, abandoning his human lover. The statue is brought to life and Cupid takes pity on Pygmalion and teaches her to dance, to the accompaniment of a beguiling string of dances of all the types popular in the 18th century. The music, composed in eight days, is ingenious and ravishingly beautiful and was given by a strong cast, with chorus of Guildhall School of Music and Drama students.

ORCHESTRAL CONCERT at Cheltenham Town Hall

NORGARD Borderlines, BACH Brandenburg Concerto No 3, STRAVINSKY Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, MOZART Jupiter Symphony. City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox and Rebecca Hirsch (violin)

The world premiere of Borderlines, Per Nørgård 's new concertante work, for violin solo with a small group of strings and percussion, jointly commissioned with partners in Denmark & Finland, was introduced by the composer, who rejected the 'interview' format which had inhibited him at Hoxton, leaving Michael Berkeley with nothing to do but thank him for his exposition. Violins and violas in equal temperament represent the workaday world; cellos and basses the 'other' spiritual world which humanity needs, characterised by 'harmonics seven and eleven semitones above the open string, 'between notes you can play on the piano'. Sovereign mastery of normal and microtonal technique and a high degree of flexibility' is demanded of the soloist to relate alternately to these two worlds. Borderlines was not recorded for broadcasting, nor scheduled for further UK performances this year, regrettably, since it proved to be the wrong piece in the wrong concert in the wrong hall, those subtleties impossible to hear properly against the ambient background sounds usual in most concert venues. Nor was it well placed after Stravinsky's razor-sharp neo-classicism. Nørgård's music was predominantly slow and inward through three movements taking 22 minutes. I found it hard to take in at first meeting; it needs repeated hearings to capture its special qualities, ideally in an acoustically perfect concert hall such as Lucerne's, or on CD. A routine performance of the Jupiter, not good enough for Mozart's 'last and best', ended an unsatisfactory concert (for us) in which a perfectly balanced, relaxed and lightly dancing account of the third Brandenburg concerto had given the most pleasure.

CHAMBER MUSIC FOR PIANO AND STRINGS

Schubert Ensemble, Belcea & Jerusalem Quartets, Florestan Trio

The Schubert Ensemble's morning concert in the visually pleasing and acoustically ideal Pump Room exemplified their talents and important contribution to British musical life. Beethoven's trio in Eb Op 70/2 is one of those imperishable favourites which, when one hears it again, convinces that chamber music can never be a happier or more satisfying experience and that all is right with the world. With their foursome, the Schumann Quartet swept us for its duration into their conviction that it too is great music, and Owen Leech's a deeper season composed for this group was a worthy successor to that composer's contribution to their Chamber Music 2000 education project. Leech's mentors have included Saxton and Schwertsik and he is completing a residency in Warsaw under a Polish Government Scholarship. a deeper season begins with icy harmonics, 'fragmentation and alienation' and celebrates 'joy and relief at the coming of spring after a cold, dark Polish winter'. It seizes and holds attention for twelve eventful minutes; an original voice from whom great things may be anticipated.

That concert was not broadcast, but later the same day you may have heard the Belcea & Jerusalem Quartets on R3 from the Pump Room. The two quartets took turns with Webern's 1905 Slow Movement (Belcea) and Kurtag's 15 little movements Officium Breve. The leader of the Israelis ,Alexander Pavlovsky, took charge of both the Mendelssohn Octet and Shostakovich's two extant pieces from a five-movement suite for string octet which the Petrograd Conservatoire student composer never completed. Pavlovsky was assertive and dominant, but with a metallic brilliance of tone and variable intonation; I would wish that in fairness Corina Belcea might have taken charge of the Mendelssohn. The audience however was roused to ecstatic appreciation by the vigour they all brought to these youthful works, though for me the Mendelssohn received an under-rehearsed, ill considered, rough and unready account of a piece which is accepted as a canonical miracle of youth (16 when composed), an appellation which I would concede only for its scherzo. As suggested in S&H, reviewing a comparably unsatisfactory performance of Schubert's Octet in Berlin, eight musicians are too many to sort out for themselves refinements of style and balance, without close familiarity and generous preparation time. Perhaps those expansive octets are two examples of works which do not 'take care of themselves' and can often disappoint in live performances, but are tricky pieces which warrant seeking out the best recorded performances?

The Florestan Trio was founded a few years ago by Susan Tomes, pianist of the renowned piano quartet Domus, with Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester. It is an equally distinguished ensemble, in demand worldwide and on CD. Their recital was one of the high points of our week. The three players are perfectly attuned, Susan Tomes still and watchful at the piano, rarely seeming to need to look at the piano and never at her hands. Schumann's Trio Op 80 (1847) has his unpredictability in plenty, with small and subtle surprises all along, far more interesting and moving than the more formulaic string quartet of five years earlier, heard the following day - received opinion about Schumann's falling off with his worsening health needs questioning (Abigail Frymann's article about him also queries why he had to give up his pianistic ambitions). John Casken's piano trio, which develops music from his opera God's Liar, received its second performance (these are an important feature of Cheltenham programming) and it is a cogent, major addition to the repertoire, which should be taken on by other ensembles. A magisterial performance of the Archduke trio concluded a notably satisfying morning; the Florestan Trio's recording of the Schumann trios is well worth exploring (Hyperion CDA67063).

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC PROGRAMMES

Claire Booth & Ryan Wigglesworth Knussen, Wigglesworth, Ravel & Debussy

The London Sinfonietta with Jeanette Ager (mezzo soprano)

Most programmes featured one recent composition, but those predominated in the last three concerts we attended, the first of them in Cheltenham's Young Artists series (good value with tickets at 3). Claire Booth has made a speciality of Oliver Knussen's vocal works and impressed with his Rilke settings for unaccompanied soprano, and Whitman Settings with her regular pianist Ryan Wigglesworth, whose own 5 minute piano piece, its performance misleadingly dignified as the world premiere of a Sonata, sounded like a slow prelude, beginning with right hand alone, and anticipating greater matter after a series of repeated chords when it stopped; work in progress, perhaps, like Martin Butler's piano quartet which had failed to be delivered in time for its scheduled premiere?. By contrast, all five of Debussy's diffuse early Baudelaire songs from the late 1880s outstayed their welcome and made an over-serious finish to their recital which was, overall, less satisfactory than their appearance as PLG Young Musicians.

The London Sinfonietta's concert was bewildering, covering a wide gamut of contemporary methods of composition and 'challenging' for a conservative Cheltenham audience. Lloyd Moore conducted his new Quint (based on five notes, A & E and the three 'black notes' between them), a vivacious, accessible (but not simplistic) moto perpetuo which got the proceedings off to a good start. Simon Bainbridge's Four Primo Levi Settings are moving distillations of aspects of the Auschwitz experience; they can be heard, together with Ad Ora Incerta on an indispensable CD (NMCD059). Of several pieces by younger composers, Dai Fujikura's Eternal Escape, a tour de force for solo cello, fast, loud and without a steady pulse, was the freshest and White Fire by Andrew Toovey (musical director of Ixion and described in the programme as a 'confrontational' composer) the least excusable. Deliberately assaultative on instruments and audience, the pianist had to wear gloves, and the clarinettist (not being free to clap his hands over his ears as we could) should have used earplugs to prevent tinnitus and permanent hearing impairment from sustained screeching tone at the extreme of his instrument's compass (Radio 3 listeners will have been free to use their volume control or switch off). The piano trio by Hugh Wood (b.1932), a senior composer now enjoying celebrations of his 70th birthday, represented solid academism of the eighties, and brought back a measure of sanity in music where the actual notes, and their contrapuntal working out of ideas, link with tried and trusted methods from the past.

KEYBOARD RECITALS

Piotr Anderszewski Bach, Szymanowski, Chopin, Beethoven

Elisabeth Chojnacka Gesualdo, Rameau, Froberger, Xenakis, Ligeti, Ohana, Montague etc

Piotr Anderszewski, catapulted into fame by withdrawing dramatically from the Leeds Piano Compeition, has never looked back. A controversial pianist, I found this my best experience of having heard him play several times. He won the Royal Philharmonic Society's award 'in particular for his 2000 residency at Cheltenham' (the Festival itself won their 2001 award for concert series and festivals), and he returned to Cheltenham Town Hall the proud possessor of the 2002 Gilmore Artist Award, 300,000 which he will receive over four years towards his career goals.

Anderszewski's platform manner is exemplary; no flamboyance, intense concentration and super-sensitive to sound quality, especially in pianissimo. His programme was bounded by Bach as its bookends, six (too many?) of the 48 to begin and the English Suite No 6, which I preferred, to finish. Although beguiled by Anderszewski's control of a rich and iridescent pianistic palette, I found Szymanowski's 3rd Sonata problematic, and the 'odd one out' as the centre piece in this recital. I have found it more persuasive on recordings by Martin Jones and Raymond Clarke, with the score to help clarify its '4 in 1' single movement structure.

Anderszewski's part playing in Bach is lucid (more easily achieved on the piano than the harpsichord) and my only reservation was a tendency to build up dynamics to such an extent that it felt close to becoming a transcription for modern Steinway rather than original music for piano, which it never was - Stravinsky distinguished music 'scored for piano' from 'piano music'. Many pianists, including currently Angela Hewitt and Andras Schiff, the wayward, eccentric Olli Mustonen and the sober and reliable Bernard Roberts, seem determined to take Bach as their own, the sparseness of detailed instructions leaving his music wide open for 'interpretation'. (Colin Booth has written at length in EMR on BBC and Early Music, deploring broadcasters' favouritism of the piano rather than the harpsichord - his own instrument and Bach's.)

Questionable was the lengthy quiet, slow centre of the Suite, the Sarabande given with repeats followed by its Double (decorated variant) played as a separate movement and also with repeats. I cannot imagine that was the composer's original intention? Anderszewski sensed the underlying dance rhythms in his Bach and in three (too few!) Chopin Mazurkas, which are really in nearer 3/4 time, and his management of the rhythmic ambiguities in a late Beethoven Bagatelle as encore left an exquisite impression. I had failed to share the general enthusiasm for Anderszewski's unremittingly serious recording of the Diabelli Variations, which utterly failed to encompass the element of humour that Brendel reveals, but this recital left me wishing to hear him play it again, perhaps at Cheltenham where he is comfortable and relaxed.

Harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka, who brought her own instrument from Paris, concluded our week at Cheltenham with the most spectacular of her several recitals that I have attended. Virtuosic works by Xenakis, Ligeti & Ohana, composed specially for her unique skills, were paired with Gesualdo, Rameau and Froberger in a continuous 90 minute sequence on discreetly amplified harpsichord (sound design Stephen Montague). Of several substantial pieces with tape, Shape of Elements by the Polish composer Jerry Kormowicz (17 mins, world premiere) was the most evocative, incorporating sampled 'frogs, birds and the splash of water - - sounds of nature the primeval source of music'. To maintain concentration, Elisabeth Chojnacka reversed normal concert practice, sitting in silent concentration to compose herself whilst the lights were dimmed (but not extinguished) between items - we were permitted to clap, but were warned that she would not acknowledge applause until the very end of a recital which no-one present will forget.

Peter Grahame Woolf

This report carries many hyperlinks; we would like to know if you find their insertion helpful? That to Andrew Toovey (with a sound extract to hear) gives context to music which alienated me, and I commend especially the link for Susan Tomes, who shares her thoughts on the way musicians relate to audiences. Please email any thoughts on this review to: Peter.Woolf1@btinternet.com (PGW)

 


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