Hampstead and Highgate Festival 2007 – Festival Finale

Divertimento in D, K136
Violin Concerto, Op.72
Les Illuminations, Op.18
Serenade for Strings in E, Op.22

Tamás András (violin)

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)

Hampstead and Highgate Festival Orchestra
George Vass

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 19 May, 2007
Venue: St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

Ten days of music and words were here brought to a close for another year. Under the direction of the Festival’s amiable artistic director, George Vass, the Hampstead and Highgate Festival Orchestra excelled itself. Thrills and drama were evident in all the pieces with the Mozart serving its purpose as a warm-up piece, producing the warm and textured sounds it should. On occasion, sounds were blurred, and the finale was lacking in articulation, but this did not matter too much because of the conviction with which this group of musicians played.

To celebrate Paul Patterson’s 60th-birthday this year, the Hampstead and Highgate Festival has featured his music. His violin concerto, a single-movement piece, is more like an accompanied cadenza, with two contrasting parts. Tamás András was a sympathetic soloist, giving plenty of pathos but not much bite. Towards the end there was a sense of the frenzy that can inhabit this music. The cellos and double basses provided a forceful heartbeat throughout and the inner section connecting the two halves was contemplative, ideal in this surrounding, especially as the sun was setting beyond the stained glass above the alter.

Elizabeth Watts won last year’s Kathleen Ferrier Award and is now an artist with English National Opera, and will go on to sing her first Susanna in Santa Fe, all indicative of her clear and dynamic voice. Britten’s song-cycle is a taxing affair, requiring a soprano to sing, on occasion, very low in the register whilst the (string) orchestra is playing loudly. Here the orchestra was slightly too powerful so that Watts’s declarations (from the pulpit!) were occasionally lost: a minor quibble. The prose-poems of Arthur Rimbaud are Impressionistic and effuse a sort of super-reality. With this in mind, the feel for the music is more important than necessarily comprehending exactly what the words mean, and this is what we got from the performers. Watts got off to a commanding start during the opening ‘Fanfare’, her voice to the fore and above everything else. The joviality of ‘Royauté’ was spot-on and the searching interlude before the more seductive ‘Being Beauteous’ told the story very well. The final setting, ‘Départ’, was aching, almost like Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte’.

A young Dvořák, happy in married life and seemingly not distressed by the death of his eldest child, is inscribed in his Serenade for Strings. This reading had all that one could ask for: a hyperactive scherzo, a lilting waltz and more besides. The clarity within the orchestra was excellent in the lively finale.

George Vass than gave a brief speech pleading for audience members to kick the Labour government out of office at the next election because of its commitment to cut Arts funding in favour of “a few days of sport” in five years’ time. I will add that there is a petition on the Downing Street website that one can sign supporting the cause for no cuts to the Arts Council budget. Vass also thanked the local community for taking the Festival to its heart. He then railed against the Government’s decision to remove Elgar from the back of the £20 note in his 150th-anniversary year, and so, as some compensation, gave a heartfelt account of the slow movement from his Serenade for Strings.

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