Often on return to our island from holidays abroad have I been struck by the apparently enhanced greenness of everything. A similar feeling occurs each year when the thirst for live music after the long summer break is finally slaked by the September Leicester International Music Festival . Year after year so startling is the impression that one begins to doubt one’s senses. Faced by the panoply of artists that shout the ‘ International ‘ part of the festival’s title, is it ,one wonders, any surprise that miraculous things should quite often be felt to be happening? Can lightning really strike so often in the one place that year after year one hears performances that make one feel one has never heard the works done better, or even as well? Or has grey matter decayed in old age to the extent that one has lost most of one’s critical faculties? Such is my confusion as to what to write and how to avoid the charge of succumbing to the hype all too common in the world of classical music.
Well, succumb to it I must. In defence I would first point to the calibre of the players that this year were willing to spend a week rehearsing and performing in the city. If one looks in detail at the programme CV’s of the artists, it would be surprising if something remarkable would not be the result, unless of course, as sometimes in the distant past occurred, there was to be some personal or artistic fall outs. This year it was quite obvious that there was a joyous friendship amongst the players despite the as usual punishing schedule. The majority were old friends to the audience as well. In honour of that I will simply list the artists of the concerts that I heard (I sadly missed the Friday Lunchtime Concert) rather than itemise players in each work. It is much fairer to refer to them as a Group, so clear was the evidence of a deep bonding . They were Violins Jack Liebeck, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Violas Robert O’Neil , Clare Finnimore , Cellos Leonard Elschenbroich, Michael Petrov, Piano Katya Apekisheva, Richard Uttley, Clarinet Mark Simpson (who was also present of course as a featured composer),Soprano Llo Evans, and lastly, but certainly not least, Oboe Nicholas Daniel, the esteemed Artistic Director. The result of the music making of this group was that for me there was not a performance which was less than compelling and in works which I had heard many times performed there were two that simply went off the scale, so revelatory were they.
However, let us start with what was and should be a reason for any Festival . From this Festival’s inception in the 1990’s it was recognised that to have a Festival that was more than just a name there was a need at least in part to introduce audiences to music not in the standard repertoire . This year ,dauntingly side by side with some of the greatest masterpieces in all chamber music, there stood the work of Mark Simpson, already being performed frequently in this country and abroad. Leicester at a Lunchtime Concert some years ago had heard the piece he wrote for the cellist Guy Johnston to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the player’s cello and then the work was repeated soon after in the 2016 Festival and reviewed in the Diary. There the reader can see how that second hearing revealed things only to be guessed at after the first hearing, a sure sign of the music having real substance. That is the problem for all new music in the 2!st Century. It seems not very difficult to get that first performance. It is the second one that is the problem and therefore one wonders how many compositions languish without ever having revealed their true qualities.
To look at the record of his performances , Mark Simpson’s music has sufficient distinctive character to have made that leap and on the evidence of the works performed in this festival receiving their first performances in Leicester , one can see why his output is making waves. It is music which is totally unafraid to produce sounds which assault the senses . Perhaps because the composer is a clarinettist of the first rank, in the first work of his in the festival, Echoes and Embers , it was clear how much he relishes the drama of that instrument’s piercing extreme upper register. I had an overwhelming feeling that I was hearing the aural equivalent to Edvard Munch’s famous picture The Scream but the drama principally seemed to me to lie in the way in which it was laid against something much more inward . There was a moment when the left hand of the pianist alone played relatively quietly a rhythmic pattern which for some reason beyond words I found thoroughly haunting.
Homage á Kurtag, featured in the next concert, had all the hallmarks of that composer in which evocative silences went hand in hand with eruptions in the high registers . Whether it was that one’s ears were adjusting I could not say but I was finding this characteristics of the music increasingly impressive and effective dramatically when as again here laid off against quieter reflective passages and even wit as in the end of the third movement.
By the time we got to the Oboe Quartet , written for Nicholas Daniel and premiered in June this year, I was ready for anything, which was just as well given the opening two movements in which I don’t think that I have heard more brutal and astonishing writing for strings (brilliantly played here), matching the oboe’s cutting edge note by note. It was as if one was locked in to an electric current of high voltage. In the programme it was described rather wonderfully as ‘gnarly’ . I was reminded of Vaughan Williams’ wonderful comment about his abrasive 4th Symphony, now recognised as one of his greatest works, when he heard it for the first time in rehearsal. It seems he remarked something of the sort, ‘ Well I don’t know that I like it now but it is what I meant at the time.’ And then again dramatically laid off against what had gone before, there was a third movement of great expressiveness exploiting the wonderful lyrical playing of the dedicee. At times the oboe soared almost like a violin.
Lastly, there was the piece which most quickly appealed ,Night Music . This was very likely because of its declared references to Debussy and dreams, nightmares and moonlight. I found this hugely evocative, all the more so because once again the composer’s grasp of dramatic structure was so sure. Unlike some contemporary music which seems to think that arresting sounds in themselves do great music make, here was a composer who went far beyond that to create music that is constantly on the move and developing in fascinating and dramatic ways. That he should hold the attention in such august company as Mozart and Schubert is a tribute to the music’s quality.
And so to the Mozart and Schubert Fest which turned into a roll call of memorable performances, two of them being those of a lifetime. In some ways it was a curious experience in that I never thought that the former would ,for me at least, have been for once put slightly in the shade. I found myself listening to such things as the ‘Kegelstatt Trio and the Piano Trio K.493 with great pleasure. I wondered at quality of the Artistic Director’s oboe playing in the transcription for oboe and strings of K.406 without thinking the balance between woodwind and strings quite satisfactory, the latter playing a decidedly supporting role as one suspects was likely , given the oboe’s naturally penetrative sound.
Then , in the great and beautifully scored Clarinet Quintet K.581 there was much lovely playing from Mark Simpson and the glorious strings but, alas, the cough that had been tracking me all week suddenly caught up with me in of all places the soft reprise of the melody in the Larghetto and all my concentration and muscle power had to be marshalled to contain the explosion. Proudly I can report that it was contained but, alas, all concentration had gone. Such are the risks of live concerts!
So, in the event it was Schubert who for me won the battle of the giants. Right from the very beginning of the festival in the early PianoTrio D.28 I felt that we were going to hear some very special playing of this composer’s music . There was even in this juvenile work a searching boldness of the string playing which banished any lingering Viennese schmaltz, without for a moment short changing the composer’s lyricism .
A Schubertiade opened the penultimate concert. In 2016 the Director had the brilliant idea of bringing together Elgar’s lighter music in an event he called to An invitation to Elgar’s music room and the result was quite enchanting. Why this kind of event should be so compelling is obvious in one respect. The audience sees the whole group at one time making music as if for one another as occurred in the composer’s circle. The series of songs transcribed for varying instruments was ,as the fairground stall owner would say ,everyone a winner. Has any composer ever surpassed or even approached Schubert’s unfailing gift of melody? The collection was completed by 10 minutes of actual song in which the Welsh soprano Llio Evans, who I had heard last year in ENO’s Iolanthe, give a magnificent rendering of Schubert’s extraordinary last song The Shepherd on the Rock to the accompaniment of Apekeshiva’s piano and Simpson’s clarinet. Pure bliss!
Then there were two performances which words cannot do justice to, one of the Piano Trio D.929 on the Thursday and the other the final work of the final concert of the Festival , the great String Quintet D.956 , both of which I thought quite simply the greatest I had heard. In these works, particularly the Piano Trio, the composer’s ‘heavenly length ‘ can seem anything but celestial. Here, though, such was the extraordinary passion and beauty of the playing and the insight the players had into the innumerable subtle changes to be found in the supposed repetitions , this listener at least wished the music would go on for ever. One was also reminded of what a wonderful acoustic the Museum has particularly for a string quintet or sextet. The Piano Trio had a dramatic power I had never heard given to the work before without it seeming hard driven and as for the Quintet, two episodes were never to be forgotten, firstly the outburst in the great Adagio where you felt the agony of the composer who knew his days were numbered and in the third movement in its Trio where the playing sounded a kind of resigned other worldliness that brought I guess tears to many an eye. It certainly did to mine. What a pity there was no recording of the performance but then listening to it at home would not have been the same. Here was a never to be forgotten moment for all those lucky enough to have been in the hall. The recognition of that came in the eruption of cheering that followed the ending of the performance .
One final point. I did not intend to pull out any one artist from such a magnificent ensemble but on reflection, and also seeing that viola players rarely get many plaudits, as I watched the players in the Quintet time and again my eyes were drawn to Richard O’Neil in concert with his fellow musicians, his posture and face physically living this music with an almost frightening intensity and I thought Paganini must have been like this. Then I thought how lucky we are that he and all the other artists were willing to make the journey to Leicester, in his case a particularly long one. Come back again all of you.
A little breather and we are into the new season of Lunchtime concerts at the Museum. On October 1st 1.00 we welcome the return of the Lendvai Trio, last here in 2016. Read the review of that concert and you will not want to miss this one.