More reviews

Presteigne Broad Street


January 2011


With 24 wide-ranging events packed into six days, the 28th Presteigne Festival was one of the busiest and most enjoyable examples yet of this unique annual musical experience, offering considered programming of recent and rarely performed 20th-century repertoire together with a strong emphasis on contemporary composers with tra­ditionalist rather than avant-garde sensibilities and the welcome proliferation of various pre­-concert talks and events. Securing Hugh Wood as the 2010 composer-in-residence was a major coup for Presteigne, and his output was well-rep­resented by performances of his Three Pieces for solo piano, op 5, String Quartet No 3, op 20, Piano Trio, op 24 and Clarinet Quintet, op 53.

Festival highlights included John McCabe shar­ing his diverse musical passions with Michael Berkeley via a series of specially-chosen record­ings; a fresh and bracing presentation of Samuel Barber’s rarely encountered Capricorn Concerto by the Festival Orchestra under the direction of Artistic Director George Vass; Hugh Wood engag­ing pithily in a discursive and tangential but always witty and wise conversation with Barrie Gavin; and a moving performance of Nicholas Maw’s Roman Canticle (a worthy tribute) by mezzo Clare McCaldin, flautist Kathryn Thomas, violist Sarah-Jane Bradley and harpist Suzanne Willison­-Kawalec, conducted by Vass. In addition, John McCabe, in one of his last recitals before retiring from public performance, consolidated his repu­tation as a selfless promoter of fellow composers’ works by showcasing Robert Saxton’s Chacony for piano, left hand, John Casken’s The Haunting Bough and Emily Howard’s Sky and Water; he also includ­ed a coruscating rendering of his own Tenebrae, selected with a view to finding out if he could ‘still play it and remain alive at the end’ as he put it: thankfully he proved eminently capable of giving a truly memorable account, both passionate and detailed, without fatal consequences.

Foremost among the premieres was undoubt­edly Hugh Wood’s Beginnings: Three early songs for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra, op.54. Described by the composer in his programme notes as ‘a piece of unfinished business’, this was a reworking of a youthful project consisting of frag­ments of a set of uncommissioned songs dating from the autumn of 1956. The texts are substantial poems – the anonymous ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Why East Wind Chills’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘O Unicorn among the Cedars’. Like Wood’s Laurie Lee songs of 1958-59, Beginnings is more of a suite than a cycle, linked by a common atmosphere exploring, as Wood put it, ‘mystery, magic, innocence, childhood’.

Luxuriating in a post-Wagnerian Romanticism tinged with Expressionist intensity, the songs were lit by the joy of youth and shaped by the cool-head­ed wisdom of experience. Echoes of the post-war British musical scene were surrounded by more pungent, colouristic harmonies perhaps indica­tive of a developing creative talent in the 1950s gradually assimilating the music of Schoenberg and his pupils. The overall effect was utterly entrancing: Wood achieved that rare degree of poignancy peculiar to the resolutely unsentimen­tal. Clare McCaldin was a passionate and inventive interpreter of these disparate texts. Her dramatic punching-out of the word ‘fists’ at the end of the central setting contrasted well with her gorgeous dying fall in the concluding bars of the opening song and the ecstatic, sustained ‘Domine’ which brought the piece to an emotionally satisfying close. She was expertly accompanied by the strings of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra under the sensitive and alert direction of George Vass.

In his conversation with Barrie Gavin, Wood referred to Beginnings as ‘old-worldy’, and the influence of the English tradition of Bridge and Butterworth was discernible, though the opening setting reminded me more of Britten in its natu­ral illumination of the text. Far more convincing and worthwhile than most of the seemingly inex­haustible examples of very early Britten works which are continually being excavated and reworked, this ravishing and invigorating little collection of songs had the inestimable advantage of being refashioned by the same hand that origi­nally penned them.

Among other first performances, Alexander L’Estrange’s And the Stones Sing took the form of a 15-minute piece for mezzo-soprano, chorus, percussion and strings. Adey Grummett’s text cel­ebrated the 500th anniversary of the 16th-century Presteigne Tapestry in St Andrew’s Church depict­ing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. L’Estrange’s settings were direct and simple, written in an unashamedly popular style with something of John Rutter’s fervour and clarity. The results were artlessly effective, betraying its composer’s repu­tation as an experienced and skilful arranger of songs. Clare McCaldin, the Joyful Company of Singers and the players of the Festival Orchestra under Vass all contributed to an admirably com­mitted reading.

The Joyful Company of Singers took centre stage in an afternoon concert featuring the Welsh premiere of Judith Bingham’s Distant Thunder, a Presteigne Festival co-commission in the form of a short setting of Robert Bridges’s poem ‘The Evening Darkens Over’ that takes the harmonies of Parry’s My Soul There is a Country and deftly reworks them into a new piece. A companion to other choral re-workings by Bingham – such as The Darkness is No Darkness, harmonically derived from S. S. Wesley’s ‘Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace’ and The Drowned Lovers, which uses Stanford’s The Bluebird as its model- Distant Thunder was a gratifying if all-too-brief reminder of Bingham’s instinctive flair for word-setting; I hope the Presteigne Festival will be encouraged to commission more substantial works from her in the future.

Clare McCaldin featured as both narra­tor and singer, together with flautist Kathryn Thomas (doubling on alto flute and piccolo), violist Sarah-Jane Bradley and harpist Suzanne Willison-Kawalec under Vass’s direction in the world premiere of Stephen McNeff’s A Voice of One Delight, a ‘monologue for voice and chamber ensemble’. Lasting 25 minutes, this ambitious piece is based on poems by Shelley and the account of his death by the mysterious Jane Williams who he fell in love with during the last months before his death in Italy. McCaldin’s strong presence benefitted the work enormously; though the stark juxtaposition of dramatic recital and sung text occasionally served to disrupt rather than enhance the narrative flow. At its most com­municative when least striving for effect, A Voice of One Delight was crowned by the poignancy of its hushed closing pages with a lyrical solo line dap­pled by touches of instrumental colour. McNeff is clearly a man of the theatre and some of the inherently dramatic gestures in his new mono­logue would perhaps have achieved greater clarity if the performance had taken place in a venue able to accommodate comfortably a semi-staging of the work.

A festival is often at its best when involving aspects of the local area. One of the most heart­ening and forward-looking 2010 Presteigne commissions was Creating Landscapes, part of an extensive cross-arts educational project collating composers and visual artists’ responses to five places of historical interest in the Border Marches region; the project will also give young people from primary schools in rural Herefordshire and Powys an opportunity to work with performers, artists and composers. Five short wind quintet pieces, written for the Galliard Ensemble, were all based in some way on the attractive Welsh folksong, ‘The Blackbird’ and highlighted a differ­ent instrument. Beginning the collection, Mark Bowden’s the pale hill took as its starting point the site of the Battle of Bryn Glas at Pilleth in Wales; using a small cell from the folksong as its basis, it lasted twice as long as all the other items and struck me as the least focussed, whilst the ensuing, unexceptional Stapleton Castle by Cheryl Frances ­Hoad seemed restricted rather than inspired by the project’s stipulations. In contrast, Lynne Plowman’s suggestion of a local waterfall in Water­Break-Its-Neck was subtly evocative and painterly. Cecilia McDowall’s Subject to the Weather, inspired by Hick’s Farm (part of a Methodist co-operative venture in the late 19th century) was exemplary in accommodating several disparate elements into a short piece whilst maintaining the composer’s own distinctive voice. It alluded to S. S. Wesley’s ‘The Church’s one foundation’ as well as suggest­ing the ‘blackbird’ in a freely expressive flute solo leading into a complete rendition of the folksong in its final section. Finally Paul Patterson avoided being hamstrung by the terms of his commission by apparently rejecting them altogether, his jazzy riffs on the Welsh folksong in the concluding Deep in the Wood sounding deeply incongruous. Before the world premiere, which was expertly played by the Galliard Ensemble, George Vass conducted an unscheduled performance of ‘The Blackbird’ in an arrangement by Cecilia McDowall, in order to illuminate the subsequent ‘variations’ on the theme. Unless future accounts always include this opening arrangement, or the order of the pieces is altered so that McDowall’s Subject to the Weather with its full presentation of the folksong begins (or ends) the collection, there is a danger that, in its current form, Creating Landscapes will make little sense as a set of variations. In any event, the con­tributions from Plowman and McDowall (the two composers who sounded as if they had embraced both the conditions and the spirit of the project) would stand up perfectly well on their own as well crafted, vividly imaginative miniatures for wind quintet.
Paul Conway

The Guardian

3 September 2010

St Andrew’s Church

Presteigne’s programming – contemporary without being cutting edge – has established a remarkably loyal following. The very familiarity of the artists and composers who return year after year has deepened the audience’s comfort zone. Thus Hugh Wood, this year’s composer-in-residence, was greeted as an old friend after the opening performance of his Divertimento for String Orchestra, Op 51. But festival director George Vass isn’t averse to quirkier fare, so pianist/composer John McCabe, another Presteigne stalwart, could perform Hindemith’s rarely heard concertante work The Four Temperaments, which counterbalanced balletic energy with a more melancholy mood. Paul Patterson‘s Viola Concerto similarly brings together soulful lyricism with surging tempos; soloist Sarah-Jane Bradley’s lustrous tone brought dramatic force to the recitative and aria, but even her gutsy cadenza couldn’t quite make up for Patterson’s less-than-wild Tarantella.
For Vass and his festival orchestra, though, the climax was clearly the first airing of Elgar’s String Quartet Op 83 in David Matthews‘s sympathetic arrangement. The central Piacevole movement, beloved of the composer’s wife Alice and played at her funeral, remained the lilting heart of the work, yet Matthews captured faithfully the palpable tensions of the Allegro finale.
For interpretive insight, it is the young lions who created the most impact. The performance of Hugh Wood’s Piano Trio, Op 24 by Thomas Gould, Marie Macleod and Tom Poster was wholly convincing: muscular but gently expressive in the moments of Ravel-like delicacy. The same players were just as solicitous of the textural detail in Cecilia McDowall‘s The Colour of Blossoms. Clarinettist Catriona Scott joined Macleod and Poster for Matthew Sheeran’s Dreaming – winner of the first Presteigne Festival competition for composers – its eastern inflections chiming well with the McDowall.
Rian Evans

Hereford Times

7 September 2010

Another Glorious Year for the Presteigne Festival

Adventurous, challenging, enthralling, the wonderful Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts has just completed its 28th season. Largely dedicated, as always, to the performance of new and recent music, this year’s programme was richer than ever. Works ranged from experimental concoctions by emerging talents to the refined fare of well-established contemporary masters, such as composer-in-residence Hugh Wood, whose music has a great humanity and intellectual depth missing from the work of some of his much younger colleagues. Also celebrated was Samuel Barber’s centenary, and the music of these two giants illumined a festival firmament glittering with stars.

Wood’s Divertimento for Strings began proceedings, the Festival’s Artistic Director George Vass wielding his baton to draw fine playing from his expert orchestra. They were then joined by composer and pianist John McCabe for a witty rendering of Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments, and by Sara-Jane Bradley who played Paul Patterson’s Viola Concerto with sensitivity. As if to remind us that all music was contemporary once, the concert finished with the first of the Festival’s many commissions, David Matthews’s effective orchestral arrangement of Elgar’s E minor String Quartet.

Cecilia McDowall’s The Colour of Blossoms is a ravishing piece for violin, cello and piano. Along with Hugh Wood’s impressive Piano Trio Op.24 it was brilliantly played in the second concert by resident artists Thomas Gould, Marie Macleod and Tom Poster. In between came 21-year-old Matthew Sheeran’s ebullient clarinet trio Dreamtime, which won the Festival’s Competition for Composers and the Alan Horne Composition Prize. The clarinettist in this and the Brahms Clarinet Trio in A that ended the concert was Catriona Scott. These performers, along with the skilful winds of the Galliard Ensemble and the Tippett Quartet, cropped up in various events throughout the Festival, the last tackling the tour-de-force of musical architecture that is Michael Tippett’s String Quartet No 3 with exuberant prowess.

Vocal contributions were provided eloquently in two concerts by the Joyful Company of Singers, while the charmingly resilient mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin not only gave her own song recital with pianist Simon Lepper but also sang new works in four other concerts, among them the Festival Finale performance of Hugh Wood’s Beginnings – an evocative reworking of three of his early songs.

Controversy reigned after the closing concert. To some beautiful orchestral playing, Thomas Gould was giving a sparkling account of Mozart’s D major Violin Concerto, when at the cadenza he picked up an electric fiddle, switched on a sequencer and launched into a blue grass montage of Mozart’s figures that went on far too long for the joke not to wear thin. It was iconoclastic, but, as George Vass remarked afterwards, if you can’t do that sort of thing in Presteigne, where can you do it?

Few festivals can match Presteigne for friendliness and good humour. Add the medieval grandeur of St Andrew’s Church and the intimacy of local village churches, throw in some intriguing talks, walks, exhibitions and a stack of welsh cakes and the whole Presteigne experience is a joy. George is already gathering ingredients for next year. Be there!

John Rushby-Smith

The Birmingham Post

3 September 2010

The Presteigne Festival
St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne

Strands of multiple loyalty make the Presteigne Festival the unique experience that it is.

Set in and around that tiny, pretty Radnorshire town (though now it’s officially in the monstrous Powys county) for the past 28 years, it attracts enthusiastic audiences back year after year, and equally enthusiastic performers and composers, keen to collaborate with artistic director George Vass (whose industrial Walsall birthplace must seem a million miles from these glorious Welsh Marches).

Thursday’s opening concert epitomised all of this, the strings of Vass’s remarkably efficient Presteigne Festival Orchestra opening with the Divertimento by Hugh Wood, this year’s composer-in-residence, and one of immense communicative personality. The work has that almost indefinable “English” quality about it, with overtones of Tippett’s string masterpieces, and has the gift of saying what it has to say and then shutting up.

Unlike Hindemith’s interminably stop-start Four Temperaments for piano (the committed composer/pianist John McCabe, devotedly giving of his skills) and strings. McCabe’s articulation and chording were crisp and well-weighted, Vass and his orchestra were alert and attentive, but I was not the only critic present who admitted that during this piece we had lost the will to live.

Another Presteigne favourite composer, Paul Patterson, was represented by his Viola Concerto, elegantly structured and seamlessly delivered by the soloist, Presteigne regular Sarah-Jane Bradley.

And then came the crux of the evening, and a great puzzlement: David Matthews’ arrangement for string orchestra of Elgar’s ineffable String Quartet. Matthews is much-loved here and everywhere else he goes, but one wonders, what was the point of this?

We return instantly to the E minor world of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, three decades earlier, so it might be interesting to programme the two together. Some of Elgar’s solo textures were preserved, tellingly emerging from the thickened, double bass-added sound-world. But this transcription had nothing like the impact of Barshai’s transmogrifications of Shostakovich String Quartets.

In these days of economic belt-tightening it’s good to note that the Presteigne Festival is bucking the trend.

According to George Vass, one of the most approachable and unpretentious artistic directors around (and a fine conductor to boot), with healthy audiences and an expanding outreach programme, things are definitely looking up.

Hard to beat, too, is the festival’s emphasis on youth, and this year has seen the introduction of a young composers’ competition.

The winner was a two-movement trio for clarinet, cello and piano by Matthew Sheeran, premiered on Friday afternoon by Catriona Scott, Marie Macleod and Tom Poster.

Dreamtime is an evocative and somewhat amorphous piece employing various musical materials to suggest ‘ceremonial practices of an unknown and ancient culture.’ As an impressionistic exercise it works well, but lacks organic development. The second movement is similarly limited, being entirely driven by energetic unisons involving all three instruments. For the players, who demonstrated unflagging energy, it was something of a mini-marathon – and refreshingly brief.

On Saturday we heard the world premiere of a choral work by Alexander L’Estrange (text by Adey Grummet) written to mark the 500th year of the Presteigne Tapestry.

And The Stones Sing, is about creation and craftsmanship, composed in an easy listening style that reflects L’Estrange’s interests in jazz, pop and music theatre. George Vass and his Festival Orchestra, with mezzo Clare McCaldin and The Joyful Company of Singers, gave a committed reading of this undeniably catchy piece which, one suspects, might eagerly be taken up by choral societies looking for an instant hit.

By comparison Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych was proper ‘grown up’ music, just as accessible as the L’Estrange but with a reflective maturity and romantic intensity that struck many emotional chords.

We already knew that John McCabe, a long-time stalwart of the festival, was giving up on playing to concentrate on composition, so his piano recital on Sunday was both a celebration and farewell. Understandably, the programme was entirely personal, framed by must-haves Haydn and Schubert (a darkly intense Sonata in A minor), supported by friends and fellow composers Robert Saxton, John Casken and Emily Howard.

And at its core was a magnificent account of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (so knowingly paced and structured) and McCabe’s own Tenebrae, which for sheer technical brilliance and intensity held us spellbound for twenty minutes. John McCabe the pianist will be sorely missed, but if more works like this are the result we shall be well recompensed.
David Hart

The Western Mail

2 September 2010

Festival serves up an auditory Feast

For 28 years the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts has brought together performers and composers for an annual feast that challenges, and delights the musical palate.

Dishes ranged from experimental concoctions by emerging talents to the refined fare of masters, such as composer-in-residence Hugh Wood.

His captivating Divertimento for Strings began the proceedings with conductor George Vass drawing fine playing from his expert young orchestra.

They were then joined by composer and pianist John McCabe for a witty rendering of Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments, and by Sara-Jane Bradley, who played Paul Patterson’s Viola Concerto with great sensitivity.

Cecilia McDowall’s The Colour of Blossoms and Hugh Wood’s impressive Piano Trio Op 24 were brilliantly played in the second concert by resident artists Thomas Gould (violin), Marie Macleod (cello) and Tom Poster (piano).

In between came 21-year-old Matthew Sheeran’s ebullient clarinet trio Dreamtime, which won the Festival’s Competition for Composers and the Alan Horne Composition Prize. The clarinetist was Catriona Scott.

All these performers cropped up in other events, as did the skilful winds of the Galliard Ensemble and the Tippett Quartet, the last tackling Michael Tippett’s String Quartet No.3 with exuberant prowess.