St James’s Church, Chipping Campden *****

Chipping Campden Music Festival’s programming is always magnetic in its fascination, and this offering from the remarkable Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective was brilliant in its powers of attraction.

Its theme was Vienna, beginning innocently enough with Beethoven’s C major String Quintet,  delivered with total empathy and ideal balance, but Kaleidoscope’s warm, intimate tones perhaps a tad lacking in outward projection.

The remainder of the programme embroiled us in the febrile atmosphere of expressionist Vienna and its incestuous artistic relationships. Now expanded into a sextet, the players were joined by Francesca Chiejina, positioned at the centre of a symmetrical arc of strings, her opened-eyed, vulnerable soprano acutely responsive to four songs by Alma Mahler, their string arrangements here revealing textural riches.

These songs shift in their conflicting moods, raise more questions than answers, and are far more reflective of the Viennese Zeitgeist, than her husband’s comparatively reactionary Lieder. Gustav Mahler forbade his wife to overshadow him by continuing to compose (unlike Robert and Clara Schumann), so it is hardly surprising that in revenge Alma started to assemble herself a portfolio of lovers from other art disciplines: architecture, literature, painting.

Before marrying Gustav, however, Alma had been involved in a relationship with her composition teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky (also teacher of Arnold Schoenberg, who later became his brother-in-law), and we heard here Zemlinsky’s Maiblumen bluten uberall. This unfinished setting of a poem by Richard Dehmel bears fidgety tempo indications affecting what seems like every bar of this attenuated piece, tactfully rendered by Chiejina and the willing Kaleidoscope, but nothing could deny that this fragment should never have been rescued and published, and how much it is a blatant steal from the Schoenberg masterpiece which concluded this enthralling programme.

Verklarte Nacht is an early work of Schoenberg’s, a tone-poem reflecting Dehmel’s poem of two lovers conversing in a nocturnal woodland, the woman telling her lover that she is carrying another man’s child, her lover responding that he will cherish both her and the child as his own.

This deeply searching scenario was conveyed with gripping emotional strength by the Kaleidoscope sextet (far more involving and intimate than the glossy string orchestra transcription), patiently built, solos emerging naturally and unflashily from the context, and creating an absorption which blessedly was not broken at the conclusion until hugely enthusiastic and grateful applause eventually erupted.

My only wish is that the Beethoven could have been replaced with Mahler’s youthful Piano Quartet, thus making this a complete picture of art nouveau Vienna – but that would have raised logistical and indeed financial issues. My farewell to Chipping Campden for this year is to praise the beautifully-illustrated programme-book covering the entire festival fortnight, and a snip at £10.00.

Christopher Morley

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