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Cheltenham Music Festival 2009-  Beamish, Bennett, Watkins, Weir, Zev Gordon: Cheltenham Music Festival: Festival Academy Soloists, Holy Apostles Church, Charlton Kings; Friday 10th July 2009. (RJ)

The Cheltenham Festival has a reputation for championing new works and the Soloists' two recitals offered an opportunity to hear premieres from past Festivals and some brand new compositions.

Pianist Huw Watkins joined forces with clarinettist Catriona Scott in a performance of Richard Rodney Bennett's Duo Concertante which was first performed here in 1986. Comprising three linked sections, this attractive work offered plenty of opportunity for the two musicians to display their  virtuosic talents.Judith Weir's Piano Quartet followed, which received its first performance here in 2000. For much of the time the piano plays at the extremes of its register with the strings occupying the middle ground. The second of the two movements, based on the ballad Blanche comme la neige, had a chillingly spectral feel with flurries from the viola and violin and a moving solo passage from the cello. This is an impressive work - well worth hearing again.

Now for the premieres. Michael Zev Gordon's A Pebble in the Pond, with words by Eva Hoffman, started life as a radiophonic work. This new concert version condenses the original into a work for voice and a small instrumental ensemble which includes an accordion.

The text consists of snatches of memory triggered by images and musical fragments and recalled by the main character. Musical quotations from Chopin and dance-halls crowd into the sequence displacing or reinforcing motifs which have appeared previously.

I could not help comparing the work with Alan Resnais' classic film Last Year at Marienbad which creates a similar mood of mystery and uncertainty where ideas and events prove elusive, and the listener is left to draw his own conclusions.

Altogether Richard Baker's skilful direction made this an absorbing experience in which music and text complemented each other perfectly. The velvety voice of Kit Hesketh-Harvey endowed the performance with a particular poignancy.

Pianist Huw Watkins is no mean composer himself, and the premiere of his interesting Four Inventions, based on Rhett Griffiths's poem “The Sibling Solution”, provided a brief respite between A Pebble in the Pond and the final work of the day, Sally Beamish's The Seafarer.

The latter was not receiving its premiere, but rather its third performance. Composed nearly ten years ago it is the central work in a group of three and uses the text of a famous Anglo-Saxon poems in a new translation by Charles Harrison Wallace.

The poem portrays the stoicism, desolation and bitterness of the seafarer whose exposure to the overwhelming forces of nature no landlubber can understand. Yet the work ends on a positive note with the man expressing gratitude for God's love.

The music underscores the narration, beginning with a solo violin passage evoking solitude and the bleakness of the seascape. Later the cello and piano join in, themes ebb and flow like the sea, and the violin imitates the cries of the seabirds. Towards the end the music sheds its dissonance and is replaced by a mood of calm.

This is a powerful work which was embellished by monochrome seascapes and pictures of birds and sea creatures by Jila Peacock projected on screens. While the images undoubtedly added to the overall impact of the piece, I felt they were not absolutely essential. The atmospheric music and Kit Hesketh-Harvey's expressive reading of the rugged, alliterative verses were sufficient in themselves.

Roger Jones

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