Gramophone, Richard Whitehouse
If not the highest-profile conductor of his generation, George Vass has an enviable record in commissioning and premiering music by composers mainly, although not exclusively, from the UK – not least through his stewardship of the Presteigne Festival over almost three decades.
Commemorating both Vass’s 60th birthday and the festival’s 35th anniversary, Variations on ‘Lovely Joan’ (2017) is in a notable lineage of British variation-sets across the post-war era. The theme, familiar as the central section of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves, is treated to a Prelude and eight variations, of which the highlights are the second, Adrian Williams’s probing Adagio; the fourth, Christopher Gunning’s soulful Andante; and the seventh, Matthew Taylor’s incisive Prestissimo, which makes for an effervescent finale.
There is a tangible quality of ‘American ruralism’ to Martin Butler’s Concerto for soprano saxophone (2009), its three-movement trajectory unfolding with numerous folk inflections – often derived from open strings – to yield engaging astringency and, in the central Cantilena, haunting pathos. Amy Dickson is demonstrably attuned to its idiom. So too are Katherine Baker and Suzy Willison-Kawalec to that of Joe Duddell’s Mnemonic (2004), a chamber concerto whose deft interplay of formal and expressive contrasts builds towards an understated close.
Framing this latter are two works by Hugh Wood, who died at the age of 89 as this issue was in production. The three songs of Beginnings (2010) reach back to unpublished pieces from the late 1950s, recomposed so the hand of maturity is evident in their richness of texture and subtlety of response, Wood’s sensitive word-setting evident from Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s eloquent rendering. Nor does the succinctness of Divertimento (2007) belie density of content – hence the tensile rhetoric of its first movement, the melodic poise of its Adagietto or the unwavering impetus of its finale.
The playing of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra lacks nothing in commitment, directed by Vass with unfussy attention to detail. Spacious sound and insightful notes by Thomas Hyde, whose Prelude and ‘Tema elaborata’ launch the opening Variations in intriguing fashion.