Feature Review – 2012 Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts

Written by: John Rushby-Smith

Between Team GB’s triumph in the London Olympics and GB Paralympics’ anticipated success in the Paralympic Games has come another gold medal event. Through an ambitious commissioning policy, this year’s Presteigne Festival, from 23 to 28 August, was dedicated primarily to celebrating the best of British achievement, and this time it’s musical.

George Vass. Photograph: georgevass.co.uk

2012 is the Festival’s thirtieth, and this year’s was also the twenty-third festival to be directed by the remarkable George Vass. There were nine newly commissioned works, the first of which, given in the opening concert, was something of a coup. It was written by the doyen of Australian composers, Peter Sculthorpe. His Island Songs is a touching lament for a changing world, in which a solo saxophone, beautifully played by fellow-Australian Amy Dickson, plays haunting aboriginal melodies to an evocative accompaniment of “natural” sounds, ranging from birdsong to breaking waves, from strings and percussion. The excellent string orchestra had already shown its mettle in William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso, and was joined by violist Sarah-Jane Bradley for an effective account of Under the Wing of the Rock, the first of several intriguing works by this year’s composer-in-residence, Sally Beamish. Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge completed the fare, a telling harbinger of delights to come. These included a marvellous recital in which Beamish, Bridge and Rachmaninov were stunningly served by the supremely talented young cellist Philip Higham and the ever-brilliant pianist Tom Poster.

Then came the first event to feature the outstanding Carducci Quartet. It began with the second commissioned work, John McCabe’s masterful String Quartet No 7 (Summer Eves), before actor Crawford Logan recited with great clarity the texts of Sally Beamish’s Five Poems of the Forest to an accompaniment of a sussurating string quintet (with second viola, Sarah-Jane Bradley) that provided atmosphere rather than illumination. A bravura performance of Beethoven’s First ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartet (Opus 59/1) concluded the evening in impressive style.

In a recital given by Amy Dickson and pianist Catherine Milledge, Chris Brammeld, winner of the festival’s third Competition for Composers, took centre-stage with his accomplished Three Inventions for solo saxophone. The recital also included an effective piece Mein Blaues Klavier (My Blue Piano) by Cecilia McDowell. Inspired by a German expressionist poem that denigrates war, it resonates with hollow desolation. Fine works by Huw Watkins and Ross Edwards preceded and succeeded the above, and the recital ended with a virtuoso rendition of Graham Fitkin’s dazzling Gate. (Don’t ask!)

The next commissioned work was David Matthews’s String Quartet No.13. Arguably the high-spot of the Festival, this intense and beautiful work was expressively realised by the Carducci Quartet, and then joined by Philip Higham for a performance of Schubert’s great String Quintet in C that was nothing short of sublime. The Carducci has to be one of the finest string quartets around.

Oft-neglected composer Paul Hindemith’s Five Pieces for string orchestra opened the billing in a gala concert that included another commission, Matthew Taylor’s stylishly brilliant Variations on a Theme of Reger which is superbly crafted for the medium. Both these works showed the orchestra in fine light. It sandwiched Sally Beamish’s Divan, on themes of Hafez, settings of Persian poems in which oboist Nicholas Daniel and countertenor William Purefoy twirled phrases around one another in ways that were evocative even if the text was not always clearly defined and one had to resort to following it on paper. This was a shame as it impaired awareness of the musical word-painting, though the exotic flavour remained intact.

Sally Beamish came properly into her own with her clever deconstruction of Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 18/4, her second string quartet, ‘Opus California’. This was both ingenious in concept and skilful in execution. In what was the Carducci’s final concert it was followed by Webern’s voluptuous, post-Wagnerian Langsamer Satz and then Nicholas Daniel joined the ensemble for a work that rivalled the Sculthorpe for poignancy, Michael Berkeley’s beautiful Oboe Quintet. This single-movement work grew out of its composer’s, and indeed the soloist’s, associations with the Craxton family. Janet Craxton was Nicholas Daniel’s teacher and the composer’s father Lennox wrote his Oboe Sonatina for her. In return Janet’s brother John gave Lennox a painting, and Michael Berkeley’s work is really a lament upon the painter’s death three years ago. In terms of both music and performance, this was another high-spot.

I couldn’t attend everything, alas, so I missed other potential treasures such as Cecilia McDowell’s commission Rousseau’s Execution, more music by Frank Bridge, David Matthews and Michael Berkeley, recitals by pianist Tom Poster and soprano Gillian Keith, and several works by yet more featured composers.

We jump instead to the Festival Finale. In this George Vass displayed his wonderful Festival Orchestra at its very best. The taxing programme began with a sonorous performance of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and concluded with a rendition of Tippett’s demanding Concerto for double string orchestra that was nothing short of brilliant. In between were two works: Sally Beamish’s No, I’m not afraid in which the composer herself recited the poetry of Russian dissident Ratushinskaya over a background of evocatively bleak string sonorities, and Paul Patterson’s Allusions for two violins and strings, a brilliantly witty work that took as its material snippets from Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Made to work busily by Patterson, the two young women who make up the duo Retorica had already given a recital of their own earlier in the Festival. After the Tippett we were soothed by the peaceful strains of an encore: the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for strings.

In his valediction, George Vass gave us a tantalising glimpse of next year’s fare, which it is hoped will include staged performances of Britten’s Curlew River and possibly an operatic work from Sally Beamish. If next year’s festival is but half as good as this year’s has been, then it will be another triumph for sure. George, you’ve done it again. Gold medals all round, surely!

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