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The exceptionally rewarding 2023 Presteigne Festival

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 music of Leoš Janáček and composer-in-residence Roxanna Panufnik was strongly represented, significant birthdays of David Matthews and Michael Berkeley were enterprisingly marked and Greek and Welsh legend was another notable dual thread running through the event.

St Andrew’s Church also provided the setting for a broad-based evening concert held on the festival’s first day. Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Reginald: the Musings of an Edwardian Gentleman (2020) was a biting, darkly humorous music-theatre piece for narrator, three vocalists and chamber ensemble that encapsulated the mordant, spiky humour of the writer Hector High Munro, known as ’Saki’ in a series of five musical vignettes using abridged texts from the author’s 1904 collection, Reginald. In this celebration of English eccentricity, Christopher Good’s barbed, querulous and immaculately enunciated delivery of the cutting text provided a focal point, while contributions from sopranos Isobel Coughlan and Jennifer Spencer, mezzo-soprano Ruby Bak and members of the Presteigne Festival Ensemble conducted by George Vass were aptly brisk and incisive. David Matthews’s The Sleeping Lord (1992), which followed, was a thoughtful, gently atmospheric setting for soprano, flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet of part of a late poem on the Arthurian legend by Anglo-Welsh artist and writer David Jones.

George Vass’ spaciously conceived interpretation ensured that the nocturnal music took on an almost hallucinatory, dreamlike quality, laced with Zoe Drummond’s soft, tender vocal lines.

Much of the piece is instrumental and the Presteigne Festival Ensemble impressed with the quiet intensity of their playing. Concluding the concert was a rare opportunity to experience Janáček’s dark and brooding The Diary of One Who Disappeared. This directly communicative setting of 22 poems about an infatuation with a gypsy girl by a Moravian farmer was heard in Seamus Heaney’s English translation. The passionate commitment, interpretative range and expressive immediacy of tenor Mark Wilde, mezzo Angharad Rowlands and pianist Timothy End gripped the attention from first bar to last.

The evening concert on 26 August was given by the strings of the excellent Presteigne Festival Orchestra conducted by George Vass. Grace Williams’ Sea Sketches (1944) received an ebullient, stirring interpretation, capturing in its more introspective moments the composer’s yearning for home, but mostly revelling gloriously in the surging lines and flowing textures. 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. After the interval, tenor Mark Wilde and horn player Alexei Watkins contributed with distinction to an impeccably paced, finely judged account of Britten’s Serenade (1943). To conclude a generously filled concert, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts and the Choir of King’s College London, together with the Festival Orchestra and conductor George Vass took to the stage for the concert debut of a festival co-commission, The Innocent Fields by Adrian Willliams. The text was taken from the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke’s collection, The Hours, with its focus on the devastating impact of the pandemic on the natural world. Adrian Williams’ cantata made a very powerful impact in its first performance, both emotionally and musically. There was a restrained but devastatingly effective use of expressive effects, such as the choral whispers of ‘It is their world now’ and the chilling final moments when the baritone soloist slid downward to the words, ‘our planet’s just a stone now’ to be answered by the chorus’ fading murmurs of ‘We sleep’.

George Vass’ well-judged tempos allowed each gesture room to register, while at the same time keeping the music moving forward. Dignified, deeply felt and sincerely performed, this important premiere was a festival highpoint.

Showcasing the Festival Orchestra’s versatility and resourcefulness, the Festival Finale is invariably a memorable occasion and the 2023 event at St Andrew’s Church met every expectation. Three Birds and a Farewell (2011) by David Matthews was a five-movement suite incorporating folksongs. The composer’s devotion to the environment was celebrated, with carefully notated depictions of blackbird, cuckoo and thrush.

George Vass and the players savoured every phrase and expressive effect…

There followed the premiere of Mastiha, for string orchestra by Electra Perivolaris, a joint Royal Philharmonic Society and Presteigne Festival commission. Inspired by the various stages in the growth of the mastic tree, which yields a resin used in medicine, foodstuffs and pharmacy, the piece had a supple, organic quality. A liberal use of glissandos in each section created the stirring feeling of being in state of constant flux and evolution and the sharplyetched motif with which the work ended, given out by first violins and echoed by solo violin, seemed like the thematic goal toward which the rest of the score had been striving and evolving. Inventively written and intriguingly structured, Mastiha served notice of a fresh, original and questing musical voice. Mathilde Milwidsky then took centre-stage in Roxanna Panufnik’s Four World Seasons (2007-11). Whether storming the heights with piquant Balkan rhythms, conjuring up an icy winter haunted by a Tibetan singing bowl, imitating Japanese birdsong or floating songlike, portamento-laden lines over tabla rhythms, soloist and players were audibly excited to present this invigorating paean to various cultures in the changing seasons. After the interval, soloist Robert Plane joined the musicians in the premiere of the orchestral version of The First Swallow, for clarinet and strings by Sarah Frances Jenkins. Taking inspiration from Charlotte Smith’s poem about the springtime return of the swallow, this warmly resonant ode to nature developed logically and affectingly out of a spacious opening clarinet solo. After a briskly paced, detailed account of Serenade for Strings by Tchaikovsky, an affectionately shaped encore in the form of Frank Bridge’s Cherry Ripe brought the exceptionally rewarding 2023 Presteigne Festival to an elegant, deeply felt close.

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