Feature Review: Exploring the highways and byways of British chamber music [The Kempten International Chamber Music Festival in Allgäu, Bavaria]

Written by: Edward Clark

The Kempten International Chamber Music Festival in Allgäu, Bavaria, Germany

21-25 September 2011

The town of Kempten (population 65,000) is one of the earliest settlements in Germany, Roman remains being discovered from AD 18-23. The people of Kempten are gifted with a view of the foothills of the German-Austrian Alps a short distance away. It is a beautiful town with much history, but seems modern and contemporary in many ways. It possesses lots of facilities such as a Music School and a superb theatre that is the envy of any similar town in the world.

It is no surprise that a spirit of adventure and local enterprise has produced an annual music festival, now in its sixth year. This came about after a lunch between Dr Franz Tröger, a local music-lover and businessman, and Oliver Triendl, a piano virtuoso of international repute. They decided immediately to launch a celebration of a different country’s chamber music each year. Herr Triendl became Artistic Director and embarked on a voyage of discovery around Europe. 2011 was the choice for Great Britain and the composer-in-residence was David Matthews, a natural choice given his extensive catalogue of vocal, instrumental and chamber music from which to select for the festival repertoire.

Herr Triendl invites world-class musicians to Kempten to rehearse and perform an amazing variety of works by familiar and unfamiliar composers. This year the choice was so eclectic that even Matthews confessed to not knowing many of them. And who can blame him when the list includes Meditation for double bass and piano by Alan Bush, the wind and string Octet by Howard Ferguson and Legende for violin and piano by Havergal Brain? Matthews and other lovers of British music are on safer ground with chamber works by Britten (only one!), Walton, Bax, Bridge, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Living composers were well represented with six works by Matthews (including a world premiere of Lebensregeln, eight songs to texts by Goethe) and other varied pieces by brother Colin, Peter Sculthorpe (as requested by Matthews for his Composer Choice concert), Matthew Taylor, James Francis Brown, George Benjamin, Hugh Wood and Thomas Hyde.

Still unmentioned are Byrd, Bliss, Warlock, Finzi, Onslow, Rebecca Clarke, Purcell, Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Arnold. Almost all the repertoire was new to the performers, who themselves are a mixture of orchestral concertmasters, section principals and chamber musician specialists from around Europe, many making return visits to Kempten. With such an extensive list of composers it was clear that, given the time available, there was no dominance by a small pool of ‘great’ composers. The aim of the festival was to embrace the wide cross section of British music to provide the audience with a genuine sense of exploration.

There was a preponderance of early works by British masters. Hence we heard the lovely String Sextet (1906-12) by Bridge with its divine slow movement, as well as his utterly mature Cello Sonata (1913-17); the extraordinary Piano Quintet, including double bass (1903), by Vaughan Williams with its premonitions of the Tallis Fantasia and the later absorption of folk material; the highly melodic and confident Wind Quintet (1903) by Holst and the teenage Walton attempting a big, ambitious Piano Quartet (1918-21, later revised in 1973-74). None of these are regularly played in the UK but all show signs of future greatness to come. For true greatness the festival ended with Elgar’s masterly chamber swan song, the Piano Quintet (1918-19). Has it ever been played by a German pianist, with a quartet from Norway, Finland, France and Russia and with such feeling?

As well as the foothills of future masters the programme explored many works by familiar names, but of largely unfamiliar pieces, all of them worthy of the occasional hearing. Bliss showed his rebellious side in Conversations for wind and strings (1920), Rebecca Clarke produced a gentle and haunting Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola (1941), Gordon Jacob’s Partita for solo bassoon was unusual to say the least and early Arnold created sparks and lots of humour with his Three Shanties for wind quintet (1943). There were some pleasant surprises too. The Octet for wind and string quartet (1933) by the gifted Howard Ferguson, the cheeky and virtuosic Impromptu for flute and oboe (1967) by Thea Musgrave, the generally melodic Legende for violin and piano (1924) by Havergal Brian and the ambitious and exquisitely performed Nonet by the largely forgotten George Onslow (1784-1853) testified to the rich diversity of British chamber works over the years.

A couple of damp squibs, to my taste at least, were probably inevitable. The single movement String Quintet (1933) by Bax failed to offer a compelling reason for being composed and the Prelude and Fugue for string trio by Finzi (1938) hardly lit the blue touch paper. Apart from Viola, Viola (1997) for two violas by George Benjamin and Chaconne with Chorale (1988) by Colin Matthews, nothing was heard from the now large list of more modernist British chamber works. Other omissions included any works for string quartet and any music by Michael Tippett. What we did hear was an important work by Britten, his Canticle III – ‘Still Falls the Rain’ for tenor, horn and piano, and six works by Britten’s erstwhile assistant, now mature master, David Matthews, the composer-in-residence, whose style comes from the deep-welled sounds of the softer grained, lyrical, melodic manner that arose at the turn of the last century, not with Elgar but with Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge and (Bridge’s student) Britten. Tippett is somewhere there too.

Matthews’s works received superlative performances. The Piano Quintet (2004) was a work of exquisite tenderness and joie de vivre, the Horn Quintet (2010) culminated with a tune on the horn worthy of Richard Strauss, though entirely plausible in the context of the work as a whole, and The Flaying of Marsyas for oboe and string quartet (1986-87) was a powerful, pungent tour de force, brilliantly played. The world premiere was a collection of songs to texts by Goethe, a nice gesture of friendship to the festival and its audience. They were largely short but of extreme beauty, a delightful addition to the modern (international) song repertoire.

Matthews’s Composer Choice concert featured, among other works, the sorrowful Djilile for cello and piano (1986) by Peter Sculthorpe, an ingenious and impressive ‘Three Dancers’ from Two Picasso Paintings by his one-time pupil, Thomas Hyde, and four pieces from the Haydn Fantasies for John McCabe (2009), by Hugh Wood (in strict Haydn mode), Matthew Taylor (a spellbinding slow movement), Matthews’s own somewhat cheeky scherzo and an ebullient finale by James Francis Brown. True glories from English music were works by Byrd: a Fantasy for six strings, In Nomine for seven strings by Purcell, and Chacony by Purcell in Britten’s arrangement for string quartet (1948, revised 1968).

Kempten can be proud of its achievement in 2011. It has a loyal, attentive audience, an inspired Artistic Director, generous sponsors and, most importantly now, a reputation among the elite of European musicians to ensure a full representation of their skills and experience each year. One final question: is this spirit of discovery unique to Germany or can British festivals emmulate this exploration of the range and variety of our own national chamber music?

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