After the musical desert that is largely Leicester during the summer months, how wonderful it is to return in September to the International Festival. Except that for a thirsty and famished soul who staggers into an oasis and is looking for sustenance, perhaps ideally it is better to start with water and the odd date rather than a box of the most wonderful chocolates.
The result was that I was minded to recall in a very different context the young Queen Victoria’s writing to Lord Melbourne her prime minister and telling him that she had found her wedding night ‘most gratifying and bewildering ‘. In truth this diarist found himself not a little bewildered at times in the five concerts, finding time and again that some opinion was formed only for, in a piece that followed, that firm reaction to be brought into question. Of course, that is what a festival ought to be about. It cannot be said enough times that there is no point to such an event if it does not play a proportion of music in different, sometimes surprising formats and feature at least some works that are rarely heard.
However, it does make for difficulty in writing coherently about such a mixture , particularly when the senses have been bombarded by over 20 works. The problem was made more difficult by the juxtaposition of two great composers about whose music I have differing personal preferences. I have always relished much of Schumann’s music. Conversely my reaction to Bach’s immense oeuvre has been a good deal more equivocal and I certainly do not go misty eyed whenever his name is mentioned.
So, one should not perhaps attempt a birdseye view of the Festival at this moment. Better and more honest might be to write from the immediate impressions noted during each concert and then see whether anything worthwhile remains to be written.
Thursday Event 1
The show got on a road with a splendid performance of Reger’s transcription for Piano duet of Bach’s Brandenburg No. 3. Charles Owen and Katya Apekishiva have in recent years built a formidable reputation as a duo in four handed transcriptions and at the Festival one remembers Stravinsky’s, and last year, Holst ‘s orchestral scores being realised to startling effect on the piano. Reger’s transcription, written for playing no doubt in the home when the original was unlikely to be heard much in performance, perhaps not surprisingly did not deliver quite such a clout. Despite the rhythmic elan of the playing and some delightful phrasing, the piano could only partially give the crucial lift and sense of spatial interplay to be had from the original string ensemble.
In Schumann’s Marchenbilder there was just a slight sense of artists feeling their way. The balance between piano and violist was not ideal in places. However, what was really noteworthy here was the introduction of the American Violist Richard O’Neill to an ensemble otherwise comprised of old friends . It was soon obvious that the ensemble had acquired another rare talent. His rich husky tone in the emotion of the last movement was truly memorable.
And then things fully came together in the Piano trio Op 80, in which violinist Giovanni Guzzo and Guy Johnston joined the concert’s pianist throughout, Katya Apekishiva, in a sparkling performance, full of drive and at times of impish humour in outer movements and lilting grace in the third movement. A lovely work.
Thursday Event 2
The evening concert began with Bach’s Partita for solo violin No.3.played with great panache. The variety of shading and vibrant depth of tone was memorable indeed from Guzzo. Following it came one of my favourites, Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style for cello and piano, played by Johnston and Owen, a piece full of memorable melody and very much asserting that depth can lie in simplicity. Much like a troubadour wandering into the Museum, the Festival’s Music Director Nicholas Daniel took over two of the pieces from the cello, to particularly fine effect in the second movement’s lovely melody.
The whole made something of a contrast with the Violin Sonata No.3 that followed, thought to have been lost for a century. This marked the welcome return of Marina Chiche, here in tandem with Owen. They made a passionate case for the Sonata but on a first hearing the jury remained out. It had occurred to me at times in the past that, when this composer was not at full throttle, in the search for dramatic and onward movement he could fall into huff and puff with much repetition and short winded gesture. The short lyrical intermezzo in contrast came across as a jewel amongst much that seemed paste.
After the interval there was another curiosity, Bach’s Cello Suite transcribed for viola. Now, it requires in the original a very fine performance of these suites to engage my attention fully so it was intriguing to find that O’Neill’s viola had me hooked. Was it perhaps because the instrument and the peerless playing made the dance basis of the music seem so much less effortful than on a cello? It was certainly extraordinary when with stamping foot the artist almost evoked the world of gypsy music. Certainly I had never before seen any connection to flamenco in Bach’s music. Extraordinary!
As was the performance of the Schumann’s third Piano Trio. Chiche, the indefatigable lone cellist of the ensemble Johnston and Owen seemed to find endless beauties and shifts of mood in this work. Again I was struck by the stream of memorable lyricism in Schumann’s best music but also the players brought out the humour and the occasional moments of weird almost other worldliness, which reminded one perhaps of where Elgar got some of his inspiration in his late chamber works.
Friday Event 3
This morning concert was a total delight. It started with Owen playing Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Enough to say that for once I was utterly caught by the composer’s inventiveness, particularly in playing of this quality.
After that were featured works within the group entitled Fantasiestucke, published at various times in Schumann’s life and seeming to bring out the essence of his genius. Of course, some would have them as essentially episodic and therefore slight when set against more complex musical forms. Thankfully such academic snobbery when it comes to the Piano Trio Op 88 and Op .73 for piano and clarinet, here transcribed for oboe and played with liquid beauty by Nicholas Daniel, does not seem to bother most concertgoers, particularly when the music is so diverse as it is in these pieces. Katya Apekisheva underlined all this in her fine performance of four pieces from Op12 for Piano. Here her dynamic range was immense as she sought out the variety in the music. Particularly memorable was her pearl -like tone in the quieter moments of the pieces . Once or twice the pianissimos were breathtakingly soft.
Friday Event 4
The prospect of another Reger transcription of a Bach work did not particularly enthuse. It should have because in the event it was an astonishing realisation for piano duet of the organ work Passacaglia in C minor, despite effects that no doubt would enrage those concerned by authenticity. True it seemed almost like Mussorgsky; the piano sounded for all the world like pealing bells on occasions. However, the grandeur in this tremendous performance was absolutely authentic.
It was followed by a performance of the cello suite No.4 which failed to take fire. I felt it was the one doubtful piece of programming in the Festival. It really must have been truly daunting for Guy Johnston, the sole cellist in the ensemble, indefatigable artist though he is, to find himself two thirds of the way up an exhausting climb and then faced by the North Wall of the Eiger.
I feared he was running out of oxygen but from some hidden reserves he found his fourth breath before the interval to take part in a performance of Schumann’s delightful 6 Studies in Canonic Form (What a dreadful title!) in which the oboe in an adaptation for this concert brought into sharp relief such things as the humour and folk basis of the music.
In the interval oxygen was clearly administered to the cellist for miraculously he returned apparently refreshed to take part in an extraordinary performance of the Piano Quintet. But more of that later.
Saturday Event 5
And so to the last concert, which was a fitting end to such magnificent music making . It did not start especially well for me for I found Bach’s Partita No. 4 with all the repeats something of a trial. Even when performed with such panache by Charles Owen, I find myself in such music thinking about the intricate working of a wonderful clock and am rather repelled not to say bored by such perfection. It must be my literary and decidedly unmathematical turn of mind.
Yet later in the same concert it was about turn again, this time in the same composer’s Chaconne from Partita No.2. Here was a form which I understood, a form incidentally, with the Passacaglia, that inspired Britten to some of his finest music. In this instance the theme followed by a series of variations had a dramatic momentum which was unforgettable when performed with such eloquence by Chiche and Owen.
In between we had had a rather wonderful transcription by Colin Matthews for oboe and string trio of the Schumann Song Mondnacht and then a performance of Brahms’ Horn Trio in which Martin Owen joined the ensemble. This fine player’s gorgeously rich tone brought out the work’s range of mood and the player managed quite wonderfully to draw attention to the work’s constant interplay and shifts of mood . In the last movement one expected huntsman and hounds at anytime to invade the Museum, such was vigour of the playing.
Then the Festival was brought to a close on another wave of fine music making with Schumann’s Piano quartet op 47, a rather neglected work beside the Quintet. On the evidence of this performance such neglect is very unjust. Its invention is of a high order and there are moments of sheer genius like the ending of the andante. A lengthy ovation quite rightly followed for all the players involved in the Festival.
Every year it needs to be said what a debt is owed to all who organise and play in this event. It is in my experience every year a unique journey of concentrated and focussed music making and every year there is at least one never to be forgotten performance. This year that was the performance on the penultimate evening by Marina Chiche, Giovanni Guzzo , Richard O’Neill, Guy Johnston and Charles Owen of the Piano Quintet. This was without doubt one of the greatest chamber music performances I have ever heard and to judge from the cheers afterwards I was not alone in thinking that. It had overwhelming momentum. In particular the second movement’s wonderful theme was played with such heartrending feeling and the outburst of anguish in the middle of the movement delivered with such ferocity ( one thought that the viola in particular was about to combust !) that for this listener at least, and one suspects for many others, some of the most personal moments of one’s life were brought achingly to mind. It had that intensity and eloquence. In such a performance Schumann’s genius was truly made manifest. Indeed ‘from darkness to light’ .
Dates for your Diary
Thurs. 5th October 1.00 New Walk Museum : Craig Ogden the great guitarist opens this season’s Lunchtime Series.
Sat. 7th. October 7.00 DMH: Jacob Hrusa, the new guest conductor of the Philharmonia, conducts music from his homeland , the Dvorak Violin Conc. with the great Hilary Hahn making her Leicester debut and then Smetana’s Ma Vlast in its complete form. ( Please note the earlier than usual start.)