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Leamington Festival: Bingham, Staud, Fox, Benjamin, Adès, Schoenberg, Chamber Domaine, Helen Meyerhoff (soprano) Thomas Kemp (violin) Jonathan Morton (viola) Adrian Bradbury (cello) Stephen De Pledge (piano), Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa, 11th May (CT)

In recent years it has become customary for the Leamington Festival to host a new music day, the festival director Richard Phillips handing over artistic organisation of the event to Leamington based composer Howard Skempton. This mid afternoon concert formed the centrepiece of three concerts of contemporary music collectively billed as Anglo-Austrian New Music Day and given by pianist Isabel Ettenauer, Chamber Domaine and the Smith Quartet respectively.

Judith Bingham’s song cycle for soprano and string trio, My Father’s Arms, proved a thought provoking choice to open the concert. The work sets three poems written for Bingham by Martin Shaw, the sub-dean of Bury St. Edmunds Cathedral, all of which are concerned with war and more specifically with the inevitable involvement of children in its horror and aftermath: a particularly poignant and chillingly topical issue in view of recent world events. The songs are framed by a hauntingly beautiful introduction and postlude, hummed by the soprano with gentle muted accompaniment from the string trio but soon giving way to the arid bitterness of the opening song, Amputation, followed by the powerful words and strongly visual allusions of the title song, My Father’s Arms. Of the five recent works in this concert it was Bingham’s that communicated with the greatest immediacy, made all the stronger for fine playing from the strings and impressively sensitive singing from Helen Meyerhoff.

In Johannes Maria Staud’s Bewegungen (Movements) it was the playing of solo pianist Stephen De Pledge that shone through more than the work itself. Staud, born in Innsbruck in 1974, has been the recipient of a number of composition prizes as well as a commission from Simon Rattle for the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2005 season. This brief piano piece is founded on resonance, making considerable use of the third pedal, resulting in some interesting and occasionally ear catching sonorities. Otherwise it was the sensitivity and deftness of touch of Stephen De Pledge that left the greater impression. Indeed, a similar response could be levelled at the playing of the ensemble in the world premiere of Erika Fox’s Malinconia Militare for piano quartet. A committed performance, or perhaps more accurately described as valiant given that the parts arrived only five days before the concert. Written in response to the deeply personal poetry of Amelia Roselli whose family were executed under the Mussolini regime and who was to later take her own life, the music is equally tortured, darkly expressionistic in its deepest moments with occasional suggestions of Fox’s eastern European and Jewish roots in the third and fourth movements. Despite the emotional intensity of its inspiration there was little to mark the work out as memorable and it is difficult to imagine it finding a regular place in Chamber Domaine’s repertoire.

Sadly an over enthusiastic steward meant that a handful of people, myself included, were locked out of the hall following the interval and as a result Stephen De Pledge’s performance of George Benjamin’s miniature, Meditation on Haydn’s Name, was listened to from the wrong side of a pair of plate glass doors. A pity, for De Pledge’s playing would no doubt have done ample justice to Benjamin’s imaginative and effervescent writing for the piano. It was fortunate that we were safely ensconced back in the concert hall for the subsequent work in which De Pledge again figured, for along with the Bingham and the Schoenberg to come, Thomas Adès’s Life Story was one of the highlights of the concert. Helen Meyerhoff’s performance of Adès’s immensely taxing setting of Tennessee Williams, to be sung in the style of Billie Holiday, was both polished and accomplished although just possibly lacking a little in theatre. What a shame that the texts of neither the Bingham nor the Adès were printed in the programme, both of which would have been highly helpful.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 45 String Trio may need little introduction in comparison to the other works in this concert yet it is astonishing how fresh this music still sounds, even when compared with a work as newly minted as the Fox. Schoenberg’s work is shot through with the angst of his near fatal heart attack, suffered shortly before the work’s composition and resulting in a piece wrought with every emotion and fibre of his being. Chamber Domaine gave an accomplished reading, intense, dark, even passionate yet there was a feeling that these young musicians will offer still more as they continue to mature as an ensemble. A possible CD of Judith Bingham’s chamber music planned for later this year will no doubt be worth the wait.

Christopher Thomas.



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