Leicester International Music Festival Sept 2016

The lately deceased Music Critic Rodney Milnes once described  the received opinion of what was worthwhile musically in the 1950’s London of  his youth  as being ‘German music  good, Italian music bad and French music worse’. One might notice that British music did not even figure in the medal table and, whilst this quote may have been a pardonable exaggeration in the interests of wit, I myself can recall having an uphill task to persuade several friends that , for instance, Britten’s then emerging operas stood comparison with anything else in the operatic repertoire. In addition, Walter Legge, the supremo of the  London orchestral scene at that time and  the founder of the Philharmonia, seemingly described  most music outside the German, Austrian repertoire of the  late 18th C and of the 19c as ‘novelties’, no doubt reflecting his own and his audience’s taste. I certainly heard some British music in those years but it was comparatively rare and in the prevailing climate one felt British music to be something of a guilty pleasure which one didn’t shout about for fear of being thought to have no real standards.

Who would have thought then that 60 years on an organisation in a provincial centre would be so apparently foolhardy as to put on 6 concerts in 3 days entirely devoted to British chamber music? And not only that but for various reasons there would be played just one work by Vaughan Williams and nothing from the music of three other giants of the British musical renaissance , Britten ,Walton and Tippett. Also, that,  wonder of wonders , the BBC should recognise, 27 years after its inception, the outstanding musical standards of the Leicester International  Music Festival and wish to broadcast  much of it. Things are indeed looking up.

Well, was it a musical success? Answer- it was a triumph. Every concert had, at least for this listener, a discovery of works which demanded attention on the highest level and which were a testament to Music Director Nicholas Daniel’s extraordinary knowledge and understanding of this repertoire. Substantial audiences seemed consistently gripped by what they heard and much was greeted with quite exceptional enthusiasm, not surprisingly given the passion of  the performances.  The musicians appeared this year to have forged into a group with a quite remarkable camaraderie, possibly from having to learn a wide and often new repertory together and perhaps from being fired by what they found. Whatever, there formed a palpable bond between performers and audience which might also explain the exciting intensity of so much of the playing. Finally, for this listener it was a unique experience to hear so much unfamiliar repertoire in such concentration.  Over the three days and six concerts the rewarding intensity with which one had had to listen is not likely to be forgotten.

As to these rewards, any judgments of newly heard work must be personal and provisional. Also, in so much music one has to cherry pick to an extent and omission does not mean disapproval! Of course, it was true that not everything made a positive impression. A few works struggled to make much of an effect on a first hearing. Occasionally one found the programme notes more evocative than the music, a not uncommon experience of mine on first hearings of contemporary  music.

Four or five pieces of that period leapt over that first obstacle, though. James Macmillan’s Kiss on Wood with its keening violin set against piano sonorities, memorably brought to life by Marina Chiche and Charles Owen, from its beginning established a unique sound world. The powerful simplicity of the ending in the context was unforgettable. Mark Simpson’s Un Regalo for Cello written for Guy Johnston to celebrate the 300th. anniversary of his fine  cello was a work featured in a recent lunchtime Leicester concert. After that performance, a perspiring cellist told me that he had indeed got what he asked for, a piece which pushed the cello and him to the extremes. At the time I wondered whether it was much more than an exhibition piece.  A second hearing did suggest ,however, that it had musical virtues beyond the merely virtuoso and that it could be a real  addition to the cello repertoire. Then, evocative of the D.H.Lawrence poem  ( one which I came to know well in a previous life),  Michael Berkeley’s Snake, for solo cor anglais or oboe in all its sinuousness and dance like qualities certainly delivered,  in a  performance which reminded all, if they needed to be reminded, of the music director’s supreme gifts as player and  interpreter.

Then there was the world premiere of Benjamin Ashby’s Beatitude , written to commemorate the passing of a loved one.  Early this year in the same venue there was a performance of a quartet by the veteran Hungarian composer Kurtag, whom this young composer mentioned as a great influence on his compositions. Played with fine commitment by the Carducci Quartet,  one could hear that emerging in this music, with its very spare and wiry textures, its moments of silence and its emerging patterns which then were scattered to the winds,  before  some regaining of poise at the end.  To this listener at least it conveyed powerfully the feeling of bereavement and also that here was a composer very much worth listening to.

Moving from the living to the dead, in particular to composers whose stars have shone only in a subdued manner since their deaths,  here there was some real gold to discover. Rather like Keats’ Sonnet describing his excitement on reading Homer for the first time in Chapman’s translation, one felt that some of these composers did indeed ‘speak out loud and bold’.  For instance , Finzi  in Prelude and Fugue ,played so beautifully by Marina Chiche, Guy Johnston and Phillip Dukes, had all the customary wistfulness of the composer’s  palette but with it in the fugue a most unpastoral drama. Later in the Festival the above were joined by  Nicholas Daniel and Giovanni Guzzo in an equally revelatory performance of  the Interlude for oboe and string quartet . Here there was a central section of quite stunning beauty, quintessential Finzi  in fact.

Equally impressive was a performance of the Bliss Clarinet Quintet by the Carducci Quartet and Chen Halevi. Why this in not standard repertoire can hardly be understood; it is not as if there is a plethora of great clarinet quintets. However, surely this is one of them. It has refined textures throughout. It has drama particularly in the scherzo, it has exhilaration in the finale and its slow movement with its exquisite ending is worthy of Brahms.

Equally revelatory in the same concert that featured his son’s work was Lennox Berkeley’s String Trio . Again the received opinion until recently was that his music was beautifully crafted in the French style but rarely of much depth, in other words the same thing that used to be said about Ravel.  In fact, this work illustrated perfectly that poise and craft is not the same as shallowness. It had both immense brio and a delightful touch of astringency in its lyricism. It was rather like a good white wine that has a touch of sharpness in the taste.

Howells and Holst also surprised, the former, not usually associated with chamber music, with his early Rhapsodic Quintet which had a great range of material and which engaged the attention throughout. Holst’s own piano arrangement of movements from The Planets predictably brought the house down.  Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva have produced very successful recordings of four handed piano music but I wondered how on earth an orchestral score of this richness could be conveyed on the piano. Well, it could be and was. Only in Jupiter did one miss the amplitude of the orchestra but the virtuosity of the pair was breathtaking and over rode any doubts . In the rendering of Venus the textures were like listening to Debussy at his most ravishing.

Underlying, of course, all these exciting discoveries were the pleasures offered by the works of two recognised geniuses of British music, though again not particularly recognised as such in chamber music. The first concert concluded with Vaughan Williams’s Phantasy Quintet. It had been preceded by the Oboe Sonata  of York Bowen, a thoroughly pleasurable work, full of ear-catching ornamentation. Alas, in the Vaughan Williams the wonderfully rich string sound of the Carducci and Phillip Dukes’ viola within a few bars had all but banished memory of what had gone before and reminded one of the cruel wafer thin gap there is between accomplishment and genius. Here was a totally unique musical world which somehow for me penetrates to the very centre of the British artistic soul.

And so to Elgar, programmed to be the foundation of the three days of music. The second half of Friday’s concert was entitled An invitation to Elgar’s Music Room . Here we were invited to listen to such pieces as Salut d’Amour , Chanson de Nuit, Romance for cello and piano, La capricieuse, music which once all too often brought about a curl of the serious music lover’s lip. In fact, when heard together, it became clear that in these pieces, usually written for performance by friends,  Elgar’s genius burns just as brightly as it did in the high profile commissions. Elgar valued his friends. The result is some of the loveliest short works in the repertoire and, as the performers’ self evident delight made clear, to be played with the same dedication as his ‘important’ works.  It was an enchanting evening.

However, it had to be to Elgar’s late three chamber works that one turned to make good the case that Elgar is here, as in so much else, the greatest of composers. Listening to them within three days, I find it astonishing that once, with the cello concerto, they were seen as a last guttering of the candle. Of course, in the case of the concerto Jacqueline Du Pre in the 1960’s put pay once and for all to that idea but the chamber works seem to have taken longer to move to centre stage. Admittedly I came to chamber music in middle age but until the 1980’s I had never heard a performance of any of them. Perhaps, also performers and commentators tended to highlight the palpable pain and sadness , the sense of loss,  the wistfulness and the fantasy in the music as indication of some decline but these things are now realised to be there in spades in the pre war output as well and to be a central part of Elgar’s unique musical personality.

Well, the performers here swept any doubts aside. Only in the last movement of the Quartet did I still feel there to be a struggle to complete the work quite satisfactorily given what has gone before, particularly the poignant tenderness of the slow movement. The Violin Sonata and the Piano Quintet also have at their hearts slow movements which are vintage Elgar and bring tears to the eyes but the outer movements as played here, besides the features mentioned above, conveyed  a dramatic passion and a red blooded thrust which  was quite overwhelming  and showed both to be absolutely central works of the genre. On the Saturday evening after the Quintet had brought the Festival to an end, the pictures trembled on the walls of the Victoria Gallery such was the ovation for the performers who had given Leicester such a wonderful three days of music. Bravo!

News of Events in October

October 6th The first concert of the 2016/17 Lunchtime Series at the Museum 1.00.The first visit to Leicester of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, though the first violin, the celebrated Alina Ibragimova, has played here on several occasions. They are playing Mozart and Schubert.

October 18th. At DMH 7.30. The opening concert of the Philharmonia’s 2016/17 Residency, a concert which marks the 20th anniversary of the Residency. In a programme of Glazunov, the Sibelius Violin Concerto ( with Sergei Khachatryan as soloist) and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, it will give Leicester an opportunity to  see in action Ben Gernon, the English Conductor who won the 2013 Salzburg Young Conductors ‘ Competition and who has since embarked on a worldwide career.

Finally, please note diary entries will not normally be quite of this length!