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


Charlie Bennett’s legacy lives on!

During his long tenure as Artistic Director of the Chipping Campden Music Festival he developed an impressive roster of visiting international artists, not least those renowned as exponents of his own beloved instrument, the piano. If you can attract the likes of Alfred Brendel and Elisabeth Leonskaja to this off-the-beaten-track Cotswolds village, then you ain’t doing too badly.

Now Charlie has retired, but the future is safe in the hands of Thomas Hull and Jessica May, and the visits of the world’s greatest pianists continue. It was my privilege to be present at the absorbing, life-enhancing recital given by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

His was a programme stimulating both intellectually and emotionally, beginning with Bach’s B-flat Partita, maintaining a forward rhythmic flow whilst allowing all the neatly-turned ornamentation to tell. The tone of the magnificent Steinway instrument was perhaps too dense for optimum articulation, but Aimard managed to create a wonderful atmosphere of confiding intimacy.

Schoenberg developed his 12-note serial system in order to protect the textures and forms he loved so much from the sagging overloading of Wagnerian harmony, and in his Suite Op.25 he succeeded magnificently in these aims. Each movement has a baroque title, and Aimard’s insight characterised each one with clarity, wit and affection. My only quibble is at Schoenberg himself: how can you write a Musette without the drone bass your system precludes?

We moved from the cerebral to the sensual with a selection of Schubert Landler and Valses, delivered by Aimard with a subtlety of dynamics and phrasing, and, bringing a huge surprise to me, making a huge centrepiece of the traditional Grossvatertanz, which I never knew Schubert had set.

And which of course provides the huge climax to the finale of Schumann’s ineffable Carnaval, with which Aimard concluded this memorable programme. This was an account not entirely accident-free (Aimard following the Alfred Cortot line of delving to the essence of the music instead of mere typewriting), but bursting with spontaneity and engagement in these charming evocations of Schumann’s friends and Commedia dell’Arte inspirations.

He made of the mysterious, austere “Sphinxes” something chilling along the way before moving on with an exhilarating sense of inevitability towards the proud finale.

I don’t like encores, and I so wished we could have finished with this. But the enthusiastic audience was implacable, and Aimard acquiesced with some more Schubert dances, ending with the most exquisite fade into the night.

Christopher Morley

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