Presteigne festival roundup


St Andrew's Church, Presteigne ****

After twenty-seven years as artistic director of the Presteigne Festival George Vass continues to find new composers whose music is more likely to intrigue, rather than alienate, audiences. Two typical examples were on Sunday evening, when composers-in-residence Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Hannah Lash both hit the marks of challenge and accessibility.

Frances-Hoad's 'Katharsis' made a huge impact. This quasi cello concerto, inspired by the suites of Bach and Britten with six movements instead of the usual three, contains several virtuosic moments for the soloist (here, the splendid Alice Neary in command of every challenge) but is also an engagingly lyrical piece.

Vass's Presteigne Festival Orchestra savoured every nuance of Frances-Hoad's imaginative score - nonchalant cello pizzicatos in the Minuet against whistling violin harmonics, jagged asymmetrical rhythms in the Gavotte reminiscent of Stravinsky (whose 'Dumbarton Oaks' concerto was to come later), and a gloriously lush final Canto. And when this morphed into a gentle, hauntingly atonal coda it sounded almost as if Berg's Violin Concerto was being revisited.

Reference to other composers was less apparent in the UK premiere of Lash's Chaconnes for string orchestra. This, too, is a formal hybrid, combining the cyclical nature of the chaconne with sonata form.

Listening to it, though, I was more aware of wispy, contrasted textures and chorale-like multipart themes than the extension and development of material. On that level it worked quite well and was, as far as one could tell, impeccably well played - but it went on too long without really getting anywhere.

One could never accuse David Matthews of outstaying his welcome. His 1980 fantasia 'White Nights' for violin and small orchestra is direct and wonderfully inventive, not only for the violinist (a lustrously passionate Mathilde Milwidsky) but woodwind principals and gentle tuned percussion. Beautifully played by everyone it was for me the evening's second highlight.
Saturday's recital by the terrific Albion Quartet was all highlights, with Dvorak's 'American' Quartet (full of melodic thrust, clean lines and supercharged dynamic contrasts) and Walton's Quartet No.2 (tight, sinewy restlessness in the fast movements and a Lento of wonderfully poised sadness) framing the world premiere of Frances-Hoad's 'Tales of the Invisible'.
This clarinet quintet (Rozenn Le Trionnaire was the fully ensemble-aware fifth member) is well laid out and elegantly scored for the players, with the clarinet often used as a sustained voice against different and occasionally more agitated string writing.

Of the three movements the concluding Allegro scherzando is the most interesting, the imitative exchanges between clarinet and violins at the start acquiring a structural presence as they progress towards a delicious throwaway ending that completely defies expectations. How good it is to hear a contemporary composer who can really develop material rather than just juggle it about.

David Hart

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