Cheltenham at large

Jeremy Pound enjoys the various delights of the Cheltenham Music Festival

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Cheltenham at large
Pianist Martin Bartlett and conductor Ben Gernon perform Gershwin
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It began on 30 June with 18-year-old pianist Martin James Bartlett delighting the Cheltenham Town Hall audience (above) with a staggeringly accomplished Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, and ended on 11 July with violinist Alina Ibragimova doing likewise with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. In the ten days between came choral music from the King’s Singers and Gloucester Cathedral Choir; Haydn, Mozart and Rachmaninov from the CBSO; chamber recitals of Brahms, Britten, Messiaen, Beethoven and various others; solo piano fireworks plus improvisations from Gabriela Montero; exotic Mediterranean repertoire for cello, lyra and zarb; the premiere of a one-man-and-his-pianist drama about Satie; and an illustrated guide to Musorgsky accompanied by brass band…

And that was just this writer’s experience of the gloriously wide-ranging 2015 Cheltenham Music Festival. Frankly, I scarcely scratched the surface. Given the chance, I would have gladly added some large-scale Mahler, a couple of chamber operas, a few tango moves accompanied by accordion, violin and piano, and maybe a lecture or debate for good measure, but, alas, there was also the day job to fit in too – BBC Music Magazine won’t just write and sub-edit itself.

This was the Cheltenham Festival’s 70th anniversary, a fact marked by one of the themes running through the event: ‘1945’ (yes, your maths is right – that was the year of the first festival). Another theme was ‘Paris’, giving festival director Meurig Bowen the perfect opportunity to explore the French capital’s musical heritage, taking in famous sights such as the opening concert’s Gershwin’s American in Paris along the way but also heading down some little known backstreets too. For instance, that Satie play, Memoirs of a pear-shaped life, written by Bowen himself, did a deft job of introducing the audience to this most complex of composers beyond his much-loved Gymnopédies and well-documented eccentricities – it’s certainly sparked my interest.

That said, how many festival goers are actively guided by such themes when choosing which concerts to attend? Few, I suspect. Many pick just one or two concerts that catch their eye here or there, while others go to nearly everything regardless, and enjoy whatever delights come their way. What themes do achieve, though, is to help stir the imagination, and allow agile-minded directors to programme unfamiliar music or pair together works that might not usually share the same concert space – it’s only when they are presented in front of you that you start to appreciate the various musical and historical links, and the director’s efforts pay off. A case in point? I doubt that Britten’s The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, for tenor and piano, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, have often rubbed shoulders before but here, brought together by the ‘1945’ strand (a little leeway was given either way…), they proved a superb combination in a late-night concert at the always-atmospheric Pittville Pump Room.

That same 1945-or-thereabouts theme also worked a treat in the Gloucester Cathedral Choir concert, where the building’s glorious gothic arches were filled with works by Britten, Howells, Tippett and Finzi. Sheer heaven for us choral bods and, even as a former chorister myself, I had never come across Finzi’s strangely rambling and grandiloquent Lo, the full, final sacrifice before (OK, admittedly I won’t be rushing to hear it again, but I am at least glad to have made its acquaintance).

Cheltenham 2015 wasn’t just about 1945 and Paris, mind. Also making appearances here and there were works featured in the new BBC’s new Ten Pieces scheme aimed at schools, while the King’s Singers and actor Tim Piggott-Smith’s impeccably presented recital of works ancient and modern based around the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland (below) was a major highlight. And if the King’s Singers’ take on this children’s classic was intended for a grown-up audience, artist James Mayhew’s and the Flowers Brass Band’s rowdy ‘I paint while they play’ performance of Pictures at an Exhibition was definitely for the sprogs – they came in their droves, and loved it.

Of course, even the best planned and programmed festivals have their moments when things threaten to go awry, which is exactly why most artistic directors have grey hair. Cheltenham 2015 was not immune. The performance of Memoirs of a pear-shaped life, for instance, threatened to go that very shape itself when actor Allan Corduner became unavailable at the last minute – a big hand to David Bamber for taking up the role of the troubled Frenchman at the last minute with such aplomb (albeit unavoidably aided with a script) – while tenor Andrew Staples also had to step in for an indisposed James Gilchrist for the Britten John Donne Sonnets. And spare a thought, too, for Bartlett and the BBC Concert Orchestra, who delivered that searing Gershwin in a temperature to match, as July delivered its hottest day in years – that the by-now-melting audience gave them a lengthy ovation rather than desperately making for the exit and a breath of fresh air was the surest sign of a job well done.

But anyway, festivals wouldn’t be festivals without their occasional ups and downs. Taken as a whole, the 2015 Cheltenham Music Festival definitely delivered more of the former than the latter. Only 12 months to wait till the next one…

 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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