Presteigne Festival review


Leominster Priory ****

The life of a festival organiser is still far from straightforward as live music emerges from its enforced hibernation, so credit to Artistic Director George Vass and his team for pulling off this year's Presteigne Festival.

Sunday afternoon's concert, given by the Festival Orchestra, started with young American composer Jessie Montgomery's 'Starburst', grabbing you from the off with its chugging chords, bouncy lower pizzicato strings, syncopated rhythms, and kaleidoscope of string colours that popped and fizzed; the players clearly relished it.

Malcom Arnold is rightly receiving greater recognition in his centenary year, and his Concerto for Two Violins was given an authoritative performance by soloists Fenella Humphreys and Francesca Barritt, communicating as one with their often tightly woven lines in Arnold's imaginative score. Direction from conductor George Vass was clear and unfussy, but also sensitive and nurturing.

Inspired by the same quotation from 'The Tempest' as Vaughan Williams's 'Three Shakespeare Songs', Gary Carpenter's Presteigne Festival co-commission '…as dreams are made on' started with a gentle rocking lullaby, with shifting and sliding harmonies, but became increasingly unsettled and anguished. Dedicated to the memories of fellow composers Oliver Knussen and Simon Bainbridge, this was a powerful work that was given a committed reading.

Monday's events included the first concert for 18 months to be given in front of a live audience by the Choir of Royal Holloway.

Their British-French programme opened with George Arthur's 'From dust'. Thomas Traherne's text on which it's based may be full of hope trumping adversity, but this musical setting asked many questions, as if the answers needed to come from within, while the vivid word painting was ably communicated by the choir with their fine blend and warm sound, and the shapely conducting of Rupert Gough.

The Presteigne Festival co-commission came from Nathan James Dearden, 'Full of sweet days', the first movement beautifully phrased, the second using the familiar text "Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing" with an urgent ostinato over which a soaring melody swept.

The previous day's Shakespeare link continued with Cecelia McDowall's 'When time is broke (Three Shakespeare Songs)'. What a texturally rich work this is, enabling the choir to showcase their precise diction, richly resonant basses, and McDowall's evocative writing, concluding with the line "The rest is silence…": an audible choral exhale, lowered heads, and respectful silence from the audience.

Yves Castagnet is the organist at Notre Dame, Paris, so one would expect some demanding organ writing in his vivid 'Veni Sancte Spiritus', and so it proved with a scherzo-like accompaniment deftly delivered by young organist George Nicholls.

Anthony Bradbury

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