In many ways this year’s festival has been a minor miracle which has showed how possible it is for quite severe difficulties to produce thinking outside the box and hence result in something quite novel that would in ordinary circumstances not have been thought feasible. One wonders how many tickets would have been sold for six live concerts, each of less than half an hour of what were for the most part miniatures that would struggle to make it into a conventional programme. I decided that I would act as I have usually done in the past which in most years has meant that I missed the two daytime concerts. My spies tell me they are well worth a visit which I hope to act on within the next few days. However, at this moment time presses.

What I have watched has made quite clear that Nick Daniel and the trustees achieved something that was consistently enchanting and thought provoking. It is true one found, in comparison with previous festivals, a lack of music that had masterpiece written all over it but as we advance in the century there is a real danger because of the quality of music so readily available that we dismiss that which does perhaps not seek the peaks but which looks  to be, as Britten self effacingly put it,  ‘useful’ and to give enjoyment to people.

Such at least on the brief acquaintance that was afforded by the four evening concerts I listened to was the predominant feature of Eleanor Alberga’s music . Works like Animal Banter ( in which the flautist Daniel Shao made a brief but memorable contribution ) , If a silver Bird could speak, Ride Through for solo cello , all had conspicuous life drawn from many sources both rhythmic and lyrical. The last was a prodigious test for the cellist, gloriously surmounted by Laura Van der Heijden. culminating in the joyous rendering of what the programme tells me is a Jamaican folk song. ( Incidentally when I saw it baldly stated the composer came from Kingston my first thoughts was that we shared a birthplace until I realised it was not referring to the ancient Anglo -Saxon town!)

The first two works revealed a fascination with rhythmic patterns reminiscent of 20c composers such as Bartok and Stravinsky, often exhilaratingly changing direction. This was shown to even greater effect in Oh Chaconne! For solo piano’, clearly illustrating in the title a connection with Bach but to my mind revealing just as surely a link to the Stravinsky of the great ballets, two of which the pianist Katya Apekisheva had in four handed transcriptions played in previous Festivals with Charles Owen. As was to be expected, the performance was of exciting virtuoso standard and the music made a sufficient impression to want to hear the composer’s voice in more extended forms.

In the rest of the programmes there were surprises galore. Who would have thought that I would have luxuriated in transcriptions of Schubert songs but I did. I perhaps slightly felt the lack of the voice in De Forelle but elsewhere each transcription revealed to wonderful effect the gloriousness of the composer’s lyrical gifts. Of course, all this was helped by the wonderful group of artists assembled, four well known across the world, Anna Tilbrook, Katya Apekishiva, Jack Liebeck, and two who are surely on the brink of being as well known,  Timothy Ridout and Laura Van der Heijden, not forgetting probably the finest oboist in the world who in close up appeared at times ready to go off pop, so red was he of face as he played his incredibly demanding instrument.

He featured in the opening of the second concert in an early Britten work, Insect Pieces, already showing the amazing witty confidence of a young titan, a titan  fully revealed in the concert’s final work Lachrymae for viola and piano, whose structure turns theme and variations as a form on its head and in which Ridout’s playing throughout, culminating in the appearance at the end of the work of the unvarnished simplicity of the Dowland song,  revealed it as one of great works of the 20c in a way I had not previously experienced.

A similar experience came in the next concert in Finzi’s Prelude and Fugue for string trio, this time from a work I had never heard before. The festival string trio revealed it to be a work of such powerful feeling that one wondered how it could be so little performed and recorded. It was given a simply wonderful performance by the three string players of the ensemble, delivering the moments of quiet reflection with great beauty of tone to be followed by superb gutsiness in the fugue, rising to a ringing unison at the climax of the work.

After that one had to wonder whether the world premiere of David Matthew’s Two Movements for Oboe and Piano might be somewhat overshadowed. One need not have worried. Some years ago the composer visited the festival. I remember having some converse with him in which, knowing he had been a pupil of Britten, I remarked how I had been that summer at a performance of the composer’s early song cycle Our Hunting Fathers given at the Bregenz Festival and how surprised I was by the Austrian ecstatic reception to such a quirky piece, for all its self-evident quality. His quiet reply suggested that perhaps it was the influence of Mahler in the score, something that had not occurred to me.

That nailing of things seems to me a characteristic of the little I have heard of his music. He is rarely flamboyant or searching for attention, yet achieves drama, excitement and at times quiet lyrical beauty in the most apparently natural of manners. For instance, the touted use of bird song in the piece could so easily have seemed something of a gimmick yet here appeared perfectly natural in the sound world of the composition. Over all there were at times huge demands made on the players, which both Nicholas Daniel and Anna Tilbrook met at every juncture. The piano writing was occasionally incredibly virtuosic and dramatic and in a way it was fit and proper that we should have been reminded what an instrumentalist this often self effacing artist is. The second movement at times made demonic demands on both artists and whetted the appetite for a possible expansion of the work into a full four movement sonata, not that in a performance like this I felt the work to be in anyway incomplete. 

This was for me the standout concert of a splendidly programmed festival. The final concert which featured three short pieces, the already mentioned Alberga piece Ride through for solo cello.  the Nocturne  from Schubert’s late Piano trio and a Transcription by Matthews of Schumann’s Mondnacht, all beautifully played,acted as a perfect meditative Epilogue to a little jewel of a festival. The director had once again showed his genius for programming and we the punters should be very proud of a city that had produced a Board of Trustees and engineers so willing to put so much labour into a presentation which resulted in perfect sound and pictures so lovely to the eye. We can now look forward to the Autumn in better spirits and to an exciting series of relayed concerts from the Museum. 

The Diary of a Leicester Concert-Goer, September 2020

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