Punch-drunk after last year’s Vaughan Williams sesquicentenary, we are now celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rachmaninov, a composer with a technique and aristocratic personality totally different from that of the rough-hewn son of Gloucestershire.

So Rachmaninov was the thread running through the programme of Leamington Music Festival 2023, running through five days over the May Day bank holiday weekend, and in fact in the three events I attended there was only one non-Russian composer.

Saturday’s recital in the Royal Pump Rooms from the awesome pianist Andrey Gugnin began with movements from Tchaikovsky’s shamelessly Schumannesque Album for the Young, warmly chorded and charmingly characterised. Then came Rachmaninov, whose thirteen Op.32 Preludes are gems individually, but presented as a collective they seem to say “more is less”, as there is no cohesion or sense of direction.

Gugnin’s exploration was both searching and powerful (his distribution of muscular weight should be an exemplar for all pianists), so powerful indeed that the fashionable Fazioli piano sounded occasionally strident under the strain.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition were spectacular in their insights, witty, wistful, frightening, culminating in a Great Gate of Kyiv which had Gugnin’s shoulders pounding out massive triplets evoking the tolling of cathedral bells.

Gugnin dedicated his first encore, a rippling Etude for left hand, to the great violinist Tasmin Little, with whom he has worked so successfully, and who was present here to join us all in admiration of his performance. After more Tchaikovsky, his final encore was an absolutely pounding toccata finale from one of Prokofiev’s great late sonatas –- so much energy after all which had preceded it.

Sunday’s concert from the Sinfonia of Birmingham drew a packed audience to the magnificent All Saints’ Church just across the road, beginning with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture (the second time I had heard this emotional piece in four-and-a-half hours – see my following CBSO review).

Under Michael Seal’s clear, no-nonsense beat this was an account which kept moving, holding the episodes together, lower strings rich and glowing, upper strings glossily sheening, woodwind clear and articulate, brass properly impactful.

Then came a rarity, the Concerto for Saxophone and Strings by Glazunov, his last completed work, and  awakening reminiscences of Finzi’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings. Soloist Amy Dickson brought a warm, mellow tone as well as seamless virtuosity scudding across the registers, and Seal and the SoB strings provided an alert collaboration.

Seal had obviously rehearsed his players meticulously for Rachmaninov’s mighty Second Symphony, resulting in a noble, heroic reading with this actually amateur orchestra punching far above its weight. Strings worked tirelessly, the many instrumental solos were confidently rendered (not least that famous clarinet in the adagio), brass were mighty in the occasional Wagnerian moments, and the gorgeous big tunes made all their looked-for impact.

Monday lunchtime back in the Royal Pump Rooms brought the Greenwich Piano Trio, opening with a Mozart G major Trio K564 with a sparkling sense of forward momentum, delicately nuanced, and a finale delightful in colour and spirit.

After this non-Russian intrusion they gave us Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque no.2, written when the composer was 20, and reeling at the death of his great mentor, Tchaikovsky. Never mind that the work shows the inexperience of its creator, profligate with ideas and unable to structure them cogently, there are many memorable passages, not least the descending chromatic scales of the beginning, the piano underpinning the lamenting cello, a gripping aural image which returns to round off this overlong work.

Violinist Lana Trotovsek and cellist Heather Tuach held their own more than convincingly faced with the overwhelming piano writing, balanced tactfully and sympathetically in Simon Callaghan’s hands, and he even tamed the Fazioli’s excesses, resulting in a wonderful example of chamber music at its finest.

Christopher Morley

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