Feature Review – Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts

Written by: Edward Clark

Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts

Presteigne, Wales

Sunday 27-Tuesday 29 August 2006

A visitor to Presteigne gets no idea of the delights of this pretty Welsh border town when arriving by the main road, which is designed to whisk the casual traveller past the town centre on the by-pass in the wink of an eye; but turn right and you are in a small but very lovely town, enriched by buildings of various ages which seem to trace the everyday lives of townsfolk past and present.

The Festival allows one to visit many of these buildings in the context of various musical events. The centre of music-making is the 14th-century St Andrew’s Church, large and very beautiful inside with near-perfect acoustics; it holds a central stage big enough for the Festival Orchestra to project a warm and wholesome sound. Three other churches nearby are also used, thereby forming the widest possible catchment audience to the central magnet of Presteigne.

The Festival began in 1983 as the brain-child of composer Adrian Williams (50 this year), who remains closely identified with it through performances and premieres of his own music. George Vass became Festival Director in 1992 and introduced a composer-in-residence system in 1994. Vass’s stated credo is: “I am most excited by music for traditional forces but which, by way of its language and form, has something entirely new to say.”

This leaning towards ‘traditional’ music probably accounts for the high audience turn-out in such a remote part of the country. Vass is nothing if not loyal to his many and varied composers and some turn up even if they are not involved with the Festival’s programmes. Vass also spots new talent; this year he commissioned a work for piano from Thomas Hyde (born 1978).

The composer-in-residence for 2006 was Pēteris Vasks, Latvia’s best-known composer, and the Festival’s programme leaned heavily towards Baltic music. However, Vass is an imaginative planner, and he was able to fit in music by Festival favourites such as David Matthews, Adrian Williams, John Joubert, Geraint Lewis and James Francis Brown to complement a range of Baltic composers including Vasks, Pärt, Čiurlionis, Senderovas, Erkki-Sven Tüür and others. Mozart and Shostakovich were also celebrated – for obvious reasons!

Music of course needs not only composers but performers. Vass collects some wonderful interpretative talent for his concerts, and it is the high level of execution on display that allows audiences maximum access to (and pleasure from) the music being heard, much of it unfamiliar. So it was at my first concert during my couple of days visit.

At St Mary’s Church, Leintwardine, the Vertavo String Quartet played Vasks’s Fourth Quartet and Britten’s Second. This all-female Norwegian quartet has been playing together for twenty years now, yet the members are still in their early 30s. Vasks connects his music to contemporary life, which gives it a very strong resonance that audiences can relate to. His quartet has moments of reflective music, quiet and almost still in the opening ‘Elegy’ before bursting into life in the succeeding ‘Toccata I’. The three remaining movements are equally expressive; the work returns to the folk-song of the opening before ending in “silence and infinity”. The Vertavo Quartet played this wonderful work with a true sense of dedication to the expressive potential of the music.

Likewise, the musicians brought a real sense of style to Britten’s Second Quartet, which received a blazing account, particularly the end, those crunching chords making their full effect. The poise that launched the beautiful opening theme (one of Britten’s most inspired) was breathtaking.

On to St Mary’s Parish Church at Pembridge to hear a choral concert by The Joyful Company of Singers under Peter Broadbent with Thomas Oxley on bassoon. “Three Latin Motets” by Cecilia McDowall (born 1951) showed a deft touch and feeling for mood, while Adrian Williams’s “My Heart is Steadfast” (for bassoon and choir) evinced a gift for melody rare in contemporary music. Frank Martin’s “Mass” followed, receiving an eloquent and, at times, passionate performance. Next, Giles Swayne (born 1946) showed his skilful command of choral forces in the traditional text of the Magnificat; Arvo Pärt’s setting of this text, however, proved the least inspired music of the concert.

Vasks’s “Mate saule” and “Sava tauta” displayed a natural talent for word-setting, combining melody with a rocking accompaniment, while the concluding bracket of three short pieces by Augstinas, Lūsēns and Tormis were all inspired by their religious or folk background; each made its mark in terms of gentle melodic inspiration. The performances under Broadbent were both dedicated and heart-warming.

It was then back to Presteigne for a late-evening violin recital, given not by Anthony Marwood (indisposed) but Sara Trickey. She ably kept two of the three Baltic works in the programme while changing the sonatas to Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ and Brahms’s in D minor.

Playing on gut strings, Trickey came off second-best in the Beethoven against the rather modern (if not massive) sound of the specially-imported Fazioli piano, but she floated the opening melody with an ease and sincerity that was maintained throughout. The more Romantic orientation of the Brahms was heard to better advantage.

In Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel the atmosphere of sustained, quiet beauty is extremely hard to maintain, but Trickey did wonders in establishing an ethereal sound and almost motionless reflection. In many ways the hardest piece in the programme to bring off, it made an indelible impression.

Vasks’s Kleine Sommermusik banishes any dark thoughts that are often part of his musical make-up with six happy pieces that never outstay their welcome. They were played with due panache by both Trickey and her very able partner, Nicola Eimer, who was an insightful pianist throughout.

On the next day the afternoon concert at St Andrew’s Church allowed us to hear again the musicianship of Nicola Eimer, this time accompanying cellist Gemma Rosefield in sonatas by Beethoven, (the two of Opus 102) and only the second performance of Prospero’s Isle by James Francis Brown (born 1969).

There is something special in these late Beethoven works: it is as if the composer glimpses Romanticism through a Classical prism. Here they were superbly played with due regard for the expressive force of the allegro movements together with the beauty of the quiet slow introduction to the First Sonata and the Adagio of the following one. The Brown work is a major discovery, a tone poem full of incident and interest.

The evening concert at the same venue brought two major disappointments, one brand new, the other a revival of a teenage work.

First, the world premiere by Geraint Lewis (born 1958), a setting of Dylan Thomas’s “Over St John’s Hill” (home territory for a Welsh composer) was embarrassingly thin on music. Scored for harp (Sally Pryce), piano (Alexander Soddy) and tenor (Andrew Carwood), it was extremely sparse instrumentally and devoid of any melody – merely serving to show how difficult it often is to set texts convincingly.

There followed a revival of “The Philosophical Beggar”, a poem by W.H. Davies set by Adrian Williams (born 1956) in his late teens. It employs Expressionist devices (particularly on the piano) that serve only to inflate the text. It was nobly sung by baritone Michael Bundy, accompanied with much virtuosity from pianist Soddy. This was an unnecessary revival that does the composer no favours in the light of his mature works.

Spirits revived on hearing the lovely and well written Suite for Harp by Huw Watkins (born 1976) played impeccably by Sally Pryce, while Canticles 3 and 5, though not vintage Britten, showed his musical imagination unimpaired by his heart problems of the time. By way of contrast Gerald Finzi’s song-cycle “Let us Garlands bring” showed how melody adds to the ability to communicate the meaning of a text: old-fashioned perhaps, but better than the arid settings that seemed the order of the day in the composer’s own time. It was sympathetically sung by Michael Bundy.

Two piano recitals by the discovery of the Festival, Evelina Puzaite, were uplifting in the extreme. Here is a major talent on the threshold of her career. The performance of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse was breathtaking in its capacity to float the music while being taken at breakneck speed; Thomas Hyde’s Three Nocturnes, imaginatively written for the piano if showing few signs of originality, was nevertheless buoyant and bright-eyed in places.

Three works by Baltic composers showed an instinctive grasp of piano technique. Čiurlionis (1875-1911) is a national institution in his home country of Latvia; his Preludes played here betray the influences of Chopin and Rachmaninov but each has its own charm and integrity. Vasks’s Balta ainava, seasons-derived pieces, represents winter; it has a dream-like quality that was affecting and individual: short but effective. Perhaps the most idiomatic writing, however, was displayed by Anatolijus Senderovas, whose Sketches showed a real talent for pianistic fireworks without being flashy or ostentatious.

Finally, in this evening of nocturnes, was a truly sublime performance of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the opening calm and delicate, the close fierce and dramatic. In the finale Puzaite’s care over dynamic markings was particularly impressive, as they are often ironed out because of the need to impress with pure speed; she showed a control which took the breath away.

There was more to come from Puzaite the following afternoon in St Andrew’s Church, with another celebration of various causes including a nice one for Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, 70 this year. A pity, though, about the quality of much of the music: Memento is well laid out but, as so often in his music, does not live up to the promise of its opening; Pärt’s early Sonatina barely does justice to his future reputation; two test-pieces by Vidmantas Bartulis and Vytautas Barkauskas begged the question of whether we were hearing the best of Baltic piano music.

Quite why Kodály’s Dances from Marosszék were played in this context is a question to ask, but the work was dispatched with an ease and a magisterial display of pianistic fireworks by Puzaite. We had the best at the beginning, Haydn’s Sonata in C (No.50), truly wonderful in its sublime use of Classical design and played with effortless authority.

And so to the Festival Finale, a celebration. Word-setting doesn’t get much better than in Britten’s “Serenade for tenor, horn and strings”, here beautifully performed by Andrew Carwood and Evgeny Chebykin with wonderful support from the Presteigne Festival Orchestra under George Vass. The Vasks tribute was his Musica Dolorosa, written in memory of his sister. This is indeed dark music and seems to sum up Vasks’s desire to express through music all of life’s tribulations in an accessible way and with emotional force.

The was a premiere from James Francis Brown, a young composer with an immense future if this work is anything to go by. His Trio Concertante for string trio and string orchestra displays that rich vein of English lyricism found in earlier masters such as Tippett (Corelli Fantasia) and Elgar (Introduction and Allegro). There is also a nod to Delius at the opening, with the violin beginning a melodic cantilena passed onto the viola and cello in sequence. But it is far from being a wallow in nostalgia. Instead, it is wonderfully alive and maintained interest even in the orchestral interludes, where Vass urged his players to heights of eloquence. There are passages where the ghost of Elgar seems to be captured in an entirely original way, the soloists passing one gorgeous melody after another.

The tricky problem of writing music for such a homogeneous sounding group was surveyed and solved by Brown’s instinctive grasp for melody within a free-ranging harmonic structure that sounds fresh and invigorating. It was played with great feeling and panache by Pauline Lowbury (in place of Anthony Marwood), Sarah-Jane Bradley and Gemma Rosefield.

The final work, Chamber Symphony (Opus 110a) by Shostakovich, is String Quartet No.8 as arranged for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai, and seemed very drab after the joys of Brown. Shostakovich has few of the virtues of the truly great composer: his harmonic language is too ordinary and his structures lack interest; but it must be admitted his music makes a strong impression, due no doubt to its overwhelming display of emotion, often sad and anxious. Vass bought off a stunning portrayal of suffering that is surely at the heart of this work.

An encore, a piece by Gareth Walters, bought us back to the Welsh roots of this highly successful Festival.

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