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Played with an improvisatory flair and excitement by Rachel Roberts

Musical Opinion, Paul Conway

Now in its 41st year, the Presteigne Festival continues to offer an unrivalled combination of top-flight music-making and inventive, thoughtfully constructed concerts in the idyllic setting of Radnorshire…

The evening concert on 26 August was given by the strings of the excellent Presteigne Festival Orchestra conducted by George Vass … Soloist Rachel Roberts joined the performers for the premiere of Edward Gregson’s Viola Concerto ‘Three Goddesses’, a festival commission. This substantial concertante piece was in three movements, each named after a different mythical Goddess. The first, ‘Morrigan’ began pensively with a slow introduction that presented the concerto’s principal material: a jagged figure first heard on the viola and three answering, richly sonorous string chords. This opening movement’s main section was fast and tautly rhythmic, with a sense of foreboding. Following without a break, the central movement, ‘Aphrodite’ was veiled and sultry, with intense contributions from the soloist, while the finale, ‘Diana’ bristled with pent-up energy.

Rachel Roberts conveyed the shifting moods intuitively, negotiating the score’s more challenging aspects with aplomb and expertly delineating each movement’s individual character.

George Vass and the Festival Orchestra provided ideal support and special mention must be made of the leader, Sophie Mather, whose sparkling interplay with the soloist in the closing movement showed a chamber-like rapport. Edward Gregson’s latest concerto is a major contribution to the repertoire, affording idiomatic, effective string writing and heartening the listener with the fluency and concision of its ideas.

In the evening concert at St Andrew’s Church on 27 August, clarinettist Robert Plane, violist Rachel Roberts and pianist Chris Hopkins preceded familiar repertoire by Mozart and Lutosławski with three substantial instrumental works. Speak Seven Seas (2011) by Huw Watkins was a sea-related trio cast in a single, tightly knit movement, laced with unexpected colours and ear-catching gestures.

Stirring and darkly expressive, Urizen (1983) by John Hawkins began with an extended solo viola cadenza, passionately declaimed by Rachel Roberts, and continued with a closely argued dialogue between viola and piano that constantly shone new and unexpected light on a recurring four-note motif.

A festival commission, Michael Berkeley’s The Magnolia Tree received a polished premiere. Flowing with graceful, spare counterpoint, this trio became evermore Bachian until the moving final bars of The Art of Fugue that inspired the new piece were revealed. The players were especially alert to dynamic shading in a work of carefully calibrated textures that seemed to grow out of, and returned to, rapt silence.

The festival’s final day of music began with an afternoon recital at St Michael’s Discoed by violinist Mathilde Milwidsky and violist Rachel Roberts, which was framed by duos from Mozart and Martinů. In between came a sequence of rarely encountered pieces that afforded much pleasure.

Canto, for solo viola (2018) by Roxanna Panufnik was played with an improvisatory flair and excitement by Rachel Roberts, making light of the score’s technical challenges, while illuminating the material’s expressive lyricism.

Originally written for two violins, Crane Songs (2016) by Cydonie Banting, was arranged for violin and viola for this concert. Utilising Ugandan musical sources, the piece requires the two instruments to interact closely with each other, with one often emulating the other’s material. Cydonie Banting’s closely twined discourse benefitted considerably from the rapport between the two string players, who delivered a spirited, uplifting reading. Hilary Tann’s The Cresset Stone, for viola solo (1993) was a meditation on stone and light that contained at its heart a reference to Gregorian chant.

Rachel Roberts embraced the score’s contrasting elements of rapt stillness, lyrical flow and bravura outbursts to produce a gripping narrative.

Adrian Sutton’s Spring Masque (2014) was a spirited dance for violin and viola that brought out the players’ agility, nimbleness and pure sense of joy in music making.

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The core repertoire for viola and piano is not extensive. Part of it are these three works, which violist Rachel Roberts and pianist Lars Vogt put together in a complex programme. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata seems to flow lightly, but is actually most profound music. Who else than the then only 27-year old composer could have so elegantly and skillfully translated life’s tragedies into music? Britten’s series of variations Lachrymae is a labyrinth of interwoven feelings with a sombre touch, posing the listener many a riddle. One senses the existential nature of Shostakovich’s last composition, too, the viola sonata op. 147, which was written by the dying composer in his last two months.

Rachel Roberts plays these masterworks with a light, breathing sound, which is never forced or pushed excessively. A simplicity prevails, never showing off or trying too much. Rather than mere size and volume, Roberts focuses on the variability of colours and subtle dynamic nuances.

It’s very convincing how Lars Vogt’s versatility helps shape this line. If the score demands it, he is able to grow to a real lion on the piano, and in the next moment retreat into the world of the quietest sounds. He has proven it many times as a chamber musician, especially at his own festival “Spannungen” in Heimbach, of which there are many live-recordings on the CAvi-label.

The authenticity of the febrile and rich sound they created, together with their intensity of emotion, made this most memorable

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“Beethoven: Music in Revolution was the ambitious title given to this five-day festival, curated and performed by the Gould Piano Trio and friends. It offered an absorbing historical perspective on a composer who subverted rules, pushed boundaries and used shock tactics, as well as capturing his rigour and passion.”

“Violinist Gould and Frith combined fire and expressive power in Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, and its pairing with Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata string quartet, based on Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, was inspired. David Adams, Gould, Rachel Roberts and Alice Neary may not formally be a quartet, but the authenticity of the febrile and rich sound they created, together with their intensity of emotion, made this most memorable.”

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Superb performances

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17/06/2024