Chipping Campden Festival reviews


St James' Church, Chipping Campden *****
If I were still running my annual roundup feature, the two concerts I have just enjoyed at the Chipping Campden Music Festival would certainly be right up there in the running for Highlight of the Year.
And these were only a couple among the panoply of events featuring the world-class performers Festival Artistic Director Charlie Bennett brings to this impossibly pretty Cotswold Town every year, several of them pianists. On Sunday I heard one of the world's greatest and modestly unsung masters of the keyboard, Elisabeth Leonskaja, in an all-Schubert programme.
In this hour-long recital she distilled the essence of magisterial pianism and insightful interpretation, making herself a vessel through which this sublime music flowed, beginning with the notoriously difficult Wanderer Fantasy.
Profligate with notes so clearly articulated even in this blooming acoustic, the piece demands judicious weight of balance between the hands, an awareness of accompanying figurations, and sonority of colour; Leonskaja provided all of these in spades in addition exploiting silences to thought-provoking effect and impressing with the awesome muscle-memory of her delivery.
Other qualities emerged in the posthumous B-flat Sonata with its different, rarefied soundworld, sometimes demanding an angel-like feathering of decorative notes, an underlying sense of tension (such as in the mysterious bridge to the opening section's rarely-heard repeat), and an assured command of dynamics and texture. In all this we admired Leonskaja's relaxed, flexible wrists in communication with her powerful shoulders – an object-lesson to all pianists of whatever standing.
In accordance with Covid guidelines, there was no interval, and Leonskaja was going to go through this whole physically and emotionally gruelling recital again a couple of hours later.
The same demands upon stamina and intellect were put upon the Camerata RCO next day, performing the two best-loved clarinet quintets in the business, those of Mozart and Brahms.
These young players from Amsterdam's world-famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra love playing chamber music in venues more intimate than their habitual great concert-halls, and they play as one, phrasing, shading dynamics, and even breathing in a unanimous organism. This heartwarming characteristic spread from the string quartet to the clarinet soloist Hein Wiedijk, abolishing any suspicion of "him and them", his own mellifluous playing with the breath-control of a zephyr matched by suave, elegant fingerwork from the strings, beautifully balanced in a comforting sound both mellow and pastel.
Tempi in the Mozart were spot-on in their selection, that of the opening movement leading us immediately into the composer's soundworld of unsentimental reflection. Inwardness came with a perfectly paced and phrased slow movement, and in the crisp finale the viola solo made an affecting interlude.
The clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms are both autumnal, Mozart with a rueful smile, Brahms regretful in retrospect, quietly throbbing in this RCO account, the players swelling and subsiding together.
Perhaps most affecting in this wonderfully moving performance was the adagio, rapt, exquisitely detailed, and returning to sad regret after the clarinet's gipsy-like reminiscences of wilder days.
As in the Mozart, the finale here is a set of variations, and again, as in the Mozart, there is an affecting viola solo – but also one for cello, resonant in this acoustic. The ending is one of gentle despair, creating a crushed mood which should never have been dispelled by the inappropriate cheering from an otherwise deeply attentive audience.
Christopher Morley

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