Once again the Presteigne Festival is here with its vibrant mix of old and new music, including four world premières and nearly thirty other works by living composers. As artistic director George Vass said at the official reception, people in the Welsh Marches trust and support his programming. “There's no need for open-air 1812s in this festival.”
If every modern piece is as accessible as Joe Duddell's Mnemonic, premièred in the opening concert, it should be plain sailing. Scored for flute, harp and strings, Duddell's note-patterns and asymmetrical rhythms – attractively complex in a John Adams-ish sort of way – have a translucent, shifting quality that fall easily on the ear. The effect is a bit like a river, teeming with life and movement.
Vass and his super little Festival Orchestra managed the changing currents very well; so too did the soloists Katherine Baker and Suzanne Willison, although their parts were concertante in nature, rather than truly soloistic. Jennifer Bate was a more obviously dominating presence in Poulenc's Organ Concerto, which she played on an imported Allen organ, a digital beast of an instrument sounding in this modest country church like a bull in a china shop. Purists no doubt had much to discuss afterwards. No reservations, however, about Bates's gutsy performance, or that of Vass and his fine young players. They really came into their own in Elgar's Serenade and Bartok's Divertimento, both delivered with enough knife-edged accuracy, passion and sensitivity to make you think they'd been practising all year.
Not often does a soloist's footwear merit discussion in a concert review; but Gemma Rosefield really should have been wearing Doc Marten boots instead of smart stilettos for her performance of Judith Weir's Unlocked at the Presteigne Festival on Saturday afternoon.
One of these five fantasias for unaccompanied cello on songs collected from American jails requires the soloist to stamp on the floor -- just one of several fascinating explorations of sound resources -- but here the effect was decidedly muffled. I have heard Ulrich Heinen, the work's dedicatee, give it much more welly.
This aside, however, Rosefield's was a fluent account of this absorbing work, full of bluesy rubato. The natural musicianship displayed here was characteristic of every contribution in the rest of a rewarding programme from the young members of the Fidelio Piano Quartet.
Violinist Tamas Andras' delicate, sympathetic response to Debussy's late Violin Sonata opened the veils on this Celtic dreamworld of half-glimpsed memory, and his subtle accompanist Inon Barnatan really came into his own in two works for the complete ensemble.
In Mozart's G minor Piano Quartet he sculpted wonderful balances and living textures with his colleagues (though some of the composer's most disruptive accents were smoothed over), and in James Francis Brown's Piano Quartet, a work which takes no prisoners in its demands, he handled the big, Brahmsian piano writing imperturbably.
This world premiere was confidently, extrovertly given by the Fidelios. The work is elegantly structured, shaped by Brown's skilful control over tempo, the graceful, airy danciing of its opening's shifting metres recalling early Tippett -- and what better model than that?
St Andrew's Church was also the venue for a delicious evening concert from the Presteigne Festival Orchestra. David Matthews' Introit made an evocatively cathedral-like opening, and Durufle's Requiem brought a spiritual conclusion. This was a well-blended account under festival director George Vass, a conductor who knows how to get the best out of willing choristers (here the remarkable Sine Nomine International Touring Choir), and who wisely kept things moving, giving the saccharine no chance to congeal.
Between these two came a gravely stately Debussy Danse sacree et Danse Profane, Suzanne Willison the deft and appealing harpist, the PFO strings darkly sonorous; and a gripping account of Britten's Phaedra, a lean, confessional score from the dying composer which cuts to the chase. Mezzo-soprano. Susannah Self was the dramatic soloist, involved and involving, commanding of range and power.
Sunday afternoon's move to St Mary's Church, Leintwardine found the fine Sorrel Quartet crisp and singing in Mozart's Dissonance Quartet, strong and adroit in Debussy's String Quartet, and well-prepared and persuasive in the world premiere of Cecilia McDowall's The Case of the Unanswered Wire.
Describing the life of a shipboard Russian engineer during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, the work has a busy, mechanistic opening, interrupted by bleak lamenting before a grim dance of death gradually disappears amid Morse Code signals. The piece is described as the composer's "String Quartet no.1", but I wonder whether its 10-minute length and limited content justify such a label.
Back at St Andrew's Church in the evening, the Fidelio players continued exploring two of this enterprisingly-planned festival's main threads. The piano quartet theme was extended with Brahms in G minor and the Piano Quartet (2000) by composer-in-residence Judith Weir.
Typically well crafted and lacking in pretensions, this two-movement work opens with a strident, chunky first movement and concludes with a glacial, increasingly medieval-sounding set of variations on a spooky French ballad. The Fidelios brought all their customary sensitivity to a persuasive reading.
Debussy has been another festival presence, and here his evanescent late Cello Sonata was given a workmanlike account from Gemma Rosefield and Inon Barnatan, capturing much of the work's elusive, enigmatic beauty.
More Debussy came in a well-balanced vocal recital on Monday afternoon, where, after Judith Weir's Songs from the Exotic, naturally phrased, and clearly declaimed, Susannah Self's hauntingly coloured Chanson de Bilitis countered Ravel's vividly pictorial Don Quichotte a Dulcinee from baritone Damian Thantrey.
On Monday Damian Thantrey's swooning theatricality did little to help along John Pickard's Edward Thomas song-cycle The Borders of Sleep. Uniformly lugubrious tempi in these nine settings steal the thunder from what really is a beautifully inward song, the penultimate The Sorrow of True Love. Iwan Llewelyn-Jones etched well Pickard's telling piano gestures.
A more engaging aspect of Pickard was revealed in Monday evening's world premiere of his Presteigne Festival commission Orion for trumpet and organ. Reflecting the composer's own astronomical interests, it begins with cosmic wisps of material and ends with the trumpeter disappearing from our view.
The sensational Alison Balsom was the stunningly accurate trumpeter, and Jonathan Scott was equally outstanding in Pickard's frequently Messiaen-like organ writing.. And outside the stars were shining undimmed by light-pollution in this enchanting landscape.
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