So once again the diarist is faced at the beginning of the new season with the explosion of music that is the Leicester International Festival, when one goes from nothing suddenly to five concerts of the utmost variety and quality, all packed within three days. It is a joy but also a problem to write about. How is one to do justice to it, not least because the faculties are sometimes close to being overwhelmed by so much intense music making? However, how moving it was for one involved with LIMF for all but one of its 29 years to hear after the last concert, Peter Mark, husband to Thea Musgrave ( one of the featured composers), and a distinguished American musician in his own right, declare how wonderful it was that a city of Leicester’s relatively modest size should mount a musical event of such astonishing international quality. Indeed, such was the international quality of the remarkable ensemble that perhaps a roll call is needed before any comments are made on the performances. At least then nobody should go unnoticed in the hurly burly!
Firstly, we welcomed back French violinist Marina Chiche, joined this year by Kristin Lee from the USA. American violist Richard O’Neill, after his astonishing debut last year, returned. Debutants American Ani Aznavoorian and German Leonard Elschenbroich were the cellists, and Brit. Chi Chi Nwanoku the double bass. The piano parts featured a newcomer from Georgia by way of the Netherlands, Nino Gvetadzse , and Russian Lydia Kavina played the Theremin (more of that later!). Those stalwarts of the festival, pianist Katya Apekisheva, oboist supreme and Festival Director Nicholas Daniel, plus the Haffner Wind Ensemble completed the group.
The intent behind the choice of music centred as it was, besides Thea Musgrave, on Dvorak and Rachmaninov and linked to their American experiences, was fascinating, particularly when one read the Director’s gentle castigation in his Introduction to the Festival of a distinguished German pianist’s dismissal of the Russian as ‘writing music for teenagers’. Once again I thought how things have changed in my lifetime, and for the better. In the 1950’s Grove’s Dictionary, the bible of contemporary musical tastes, an eminent music critic, and no fool ( it was he that forecast that ‘Peter Grimes’ would go into the international repertoire), declared that little if any of Rachmaninov’s music would be played in the future. Furthermore, the very first concert I went to in the then new Festival Hall and conducted by George Weldon featured Dvorak’s Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’. I enjoyed it but almost immediately after that I heard Beethoven’s 5th for the first time, conducted by Furtwangler no less, and such was the impact that I tended to agree with a school friend and general opinion that German music was really the thing. However, over the years I have come to question that, particularly since the bulk of the greatest of late 19c and then 20c. music seemed to me to come irrefutably from countries other than Germany and Austria i.e, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, France, Italy, America and Britain. (Incidentally how delightful it was to hear Simon Rattle last week when opening the LSO series with a complete programme of British music, refer to such music as ‘a treasure trove’. Only a few years ago such programming would have been thought an enormous gamble but here it attracted full houses and from experience that is no longer a cause for surprise.)
Therefore, it was not any surprise that there were enthusiastic audiences for the programmes in the Museum. In the first Lunchtime concert from the opening with Rachmaninov’s Trio Elegiaque, even in this early work one had evidence of the composer’s inexhaustible capacity to shape a melody. The passionate performance by Ciche, Aznavoorian and Gvetadzse immediately set a high standard for the three days.
Perhaps, though, even more memorable was the performance of one of Dvorak’s masterpieces, the String Quartet Op.96 ‘American’. It so happens that only a few months ago I heard a very fine interpretation of this by the Maggini Quartet, beautifully moulded and with a sound of the utmost mellowness. As it was launched here that clearly was not the aim. Lee, Chiche, O’Neil and Aznavoorian went at it like a bull at a gate and once it settled the first movement was about as thrilling, urgent and dramatic as I have ever heard it played. And yet the sound never descended into coarseness. The lyricism of the slow movement was all there and the extraordinary clarity between the parts brought its own rewards.
Sandwiched between these was a finely atmospheric work by Musgrave, Night Windows. I remember, when the composer came fifteen years ago to the festival, finding her music endlessly fascinating. It seemed to me then that it was music that was clearly and imaginatively conceived , not a note too many and hence often of concentrated impact. On a first hearing of this work, played by Daniel and Apekisheva, I found in particular the evocation of the signature painting by Hopper quite wonderfully evocative. How well the timbre of the oboe was used throughout to evoke the different mood of each ‘window’ and the edginess of a city at night.
And so the ship was launched. In the evening concert, in the first half we had Bartok, Musgrave and Martinu. The contemporary piece Niobe,for oboe and tape was, alas, not a success and showed possibly the problems that can occur when instrumental music is wedded to electronic. The programme described the latter as accompaniment to the oboe. In the event, after an apparently successful rehearsal, the volume knob must have been turned up, so much so that the instrument was frequently drowned by the speakers. Indeed, at times this listener found the piercingly loud volume of the latter replicated what I imagine to be the experience of being subjected to torture. It was all rather sad since one caught at times in quieter passages a haunting quality that suggested this to be a work of considerable imagination.
Elsewhere in the first part we had an invigorating performance, full of gypsy sounds and rhythms, of Bartok’s Second Rhapsody for violin and piano, given by Chiche and Apekisheva. This was followed by a strangely beautiful work by Martinu, Fantasia for therimin ,oboe, string quartet and piano. I’ve long had a liking for this composer’s work. Some of his symphonic and operatic writing has a rare radiance and his sound world is usually instantly recognisable. So it was here. The theremin is an electronic music instrument which produces a single note at a time, changed as a result of the player’s hands moving across an electronic field. The sound itself is remarkably beautiful in an ethereal way and one of the pleasures of the live performance was to watch the player as if by magic conjuring these sounds out of the ether. However, the central point was the glow of much of this music as delivered by Apekisheva, Daniel and the string quartet. It is curious that Martinu is not more widely performed.
There was more discovery for me in the second half with a performance of Dvorak’s String Quintet Op 77, a work I cannot recall ever having heard live. The first two movements, perhaps because of the length of the concert and a flagging concentration, I found slightly ordinary for Dvorak . However, from the scherzo onwards it took off. Indeed the second slow movement seemed the composer at his most inspired and the invention of the last movement in an invigorating performance by the violins, viola , Elschenbroich cello and Nwanoku double bass danced us all out into the night.
At 1.p.m next day we were back to be welcomed by Musgrave’s Cantilena ,a work for oboe , violin (Chiche), viola, and cello (Aznavoorian). I remembered how sometimes this composer likes to wed her music to the physical space in which it is to be performed, here a new hall at its opening being gradually welcomed into the fold of a city’s scene. This was music that seemed clearly and dramatically to go from A to B and then finally to C, fully engaging the attention on the journey.
Following this came Apekisheva and Gvetadze performing ravishingly some Rachmaninov for four hands, in which it rapidly became clear that with the latter Leicester was meeting for the first time yet another fine pianist. This became even clearer in what followed in a performance by her, Lee, and Aznavoorian of Dvorak’s Piano Trio ‘Dumky’. I’ve always thought this work one of the loveliest and most haunting in the repertoire but have also recognised that it is not that easy to hold together. As it so happened, there was a very fine performance in the Gallery only last year but this one was certainly its equal, if not its superior. Here a wide dynamic range and variety of colour, particularly from the piano, completely banished any sense of repetition and revealed it unequivocally as one of the masterpieces of the repertoire .
By Friday evening, I have to confess to suffering slightly from overload. I welcomed greatly the Musgrave Medley which opened the concert and which illustrated yet again the liveliness and range of this composer in music which engaged the majority of the ensemble and which had been written mostly for an occasion. Before playing his piece Dawn the Music Director had read out part of an address the composer made when receiving an award. In this she had underlined the vital importance of music to us all. In her roll call of composers she finished with Britten and I recalled that composer in a similar situation when receiving a prize at Aspen in America in the 1960’s saying that he wanted his music above all to be useful. I thought at the time how admirable this was, a great composer not writing music for posterity but for the present. Listening to this medley I thought it displayed very much the same intention and that in those pieces written for occasions how delighted the recipients must have been to have them commemorated /noted in music of such invention, directness, descriptive power and wit. Prelude from Variations for Judith made a particularly strong impression.
Suite for cello and piano by the Russian born Lera Auerbach and vividly played by Aznavoorian and Gvetadze began by making an equally strong impression. This was music that spoke clearly and dramatically in the style of 20c. Russian music. However, probably the result of fatigue, and it being a first hearing, I found myself increasingly noting its accomplishment rather than its individuality. In terms of memorability it was the superb performances of Rachmaninov and Prokofiev by Gvetadze that followed which compelled my attention. She had all the power demanded of this music but she also coaxed out of the piano the most exquisite singing tone in the treble. The same could be said for the performance by Lee and Apekisheva of Fritz Kreisler’s rendering of the tune from ‘Brief Encounter’!
It was a long, long concert but it says something for the artists of the evening that joined by Elschenbroich they still managed to rise to the challenge of a Dvorak masterpiece, the Piano Quintet Op.81 . However many times I have heard this in the Gallery, and it has been a few times, I never fail to be bowled over by the beauty and invention of this work. It was a magnificently vivid performance and again we were all sent on our way out into New Walk with the music singing in our heads.
And so to the last day. I gather that the Pied Pipers of Hamelin did their work splendidly at midday, being overwhelmed by the children of Leicester and that they duly returned them all safely to their parents at the end. Afterwards the last evening concert set the seal on a superb Festival. It was fitting that the proceedings should have begun with a Musgrave piece entitled Snapshots. This was written as a competition test piece but in a mixture of seriousness and impishness the composer had just written the notes and left off any other indications usually found on a score in order to emphasise amongst other things that in the performance of any work worth its salt there are many ,many ways to bell the cat. Oh, those critics who shake their heads over ‘wrong’ interpretations! They belong to what I call the ‘you should have heard how so and so did it’ brigade. Whatever, the work emerged in Apekishiva’s performance as utterly characteristic of a composer whose presence in Leicester with her husband throughout the festival added such life and fun to the proceedings.
There followed just about the most electric and fervent performance of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata that I have ever heard. Elschenbroich and Apekisheva dug so deep to reveal the treasures of this work ( Has any work in the repertoire more memorable melodies?) that one felt how absurd was the comment quoted in the festival booklet about the composer’s music. Here one feared the cello might well self combust so pushed to the extremes of feeling was the music and as for the pianist, well she matched her partner in passion.
It was just as well that the interval came after that. Afterwards Auerbach’s transcription for oboe of Prokofiev’s Flute sonata cooled things down a bit. Realised by Daniel, Aznavoorian and Apekisheva it was full of the composer’s characteristic blend of edgy lyricism and sardonic wit and made an exactly right preparation for the last work, Dvorak’s Wind Serenade Op.44 , one of the composer’s sunniest works, and that is saying something! It was played by what remained of the Festival Ensemble with a major addition of Brits in the shape of the old friends of The Haffner Wind Ensemble. Sometimes in the past massed wind music in the gallery has been rather wearingly too much in your face. Whether because of Dvorak’s scoring or because of the players’ understanding of the dynamics needed to transmit in this space the serenading qualities of the music, all that can be said is that it was a delight from beginning to end and made a fitting conclusion to yet another vintage Festival. The audience rightly cheered the musicians to the echo. We are much in their debt, in particular to Nicholas Daniel who year after year engineers music making of such pristine quality.
The Lunchtime series begins anew with The Britten Oboe Quartet on Thurs. October 11th 1.00 p.m at The New Walk Museum . Sadly the diarist will be on holiday recovering from the festival but will have returned for the visit of the clarinettist Julian Bliss on October 25th at the same venue and at the same time.
On the following day October 26th we have the first of the season’s concerts given by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the De Montfort Hall starting at 7.30 p.m. There look to be some exceptionally fine concerts this season, but more of that anon.