And they’re off

Jeremy Pound takes in the delights of the Cheltenham Festival
 

Katherine Jenkins sang at Cheltenham Racecourse on Saturday. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, though it did give us the chance to make a few witty asides (well, we thought they were witty) on Twitter about fences, soft ground, and so on and so on.

I’ve got nothing against Katherine Jenkins, really – her mezzo voice is by no means the monstrosity that her detractors claim. But her appearance in my home town could not have been worse timed, as it clashed directly with the Rodgers and Hammersmith gala at the town hall that had long been in the diary as a major opening event of the Cheltenham Music Festival – just the sort of programme that might well get a few new punters to test the Festival water.
 

What was festival director Meurig Bowen to do? Complain about Jenkins’s appearance, a charity fundraiser, and try to get it postponed? He would have seemed churlish in the extreme. Compete by lowering prices for what is one of the more expensive events to stage? Then the already difficult task of balancing the festival’s books would become even more tricky. In the event, Bowen chose the latter option.

Not ideal. So he will, then, have been all the more delighted to see near-full houses for both Sunday’s and yesterday’s 11am concerts at the Pittville Pump Rooms, given by violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien and the Chiaroscuro Quartet (led by Ibragimova) respectively. OK, so there may have been a preponderance of grey/white/bald heads, but at least those seats were filled – and, to be frank, for a working day morning concert, row upon row of twenty-somethings isn’t going to happen.
 

Ibragimova, here for a three-day residency, was the star turn here, and her playing  in both concerts was stunning – impeccable intonation, an uncannily effortless technique and, most noticeably, a masterful control of pianissimo.
Sunday’s recital brought us Brahms’s Sonata in G, Op. 78, Szymanowski’s Mythes, and Schumann’s Second Sonata.

The Szymanowski, for which Ibragimova and Tiberghien have already won praise on disc, showed the Polish composer in intoxicating Impressionist mode  – if you like Ravel and Debussy, you’ll like Mythes. The dazzling, daring Schumann, meanwhile – complete with the most exquisite set of variations on a chorale you’ll hear outside Mendelssohn – restored my faith in the German composer’s violin music after the endurance test of his clunky concerto (which Clara was right to suppress, in my opinion) in Lugano last week.

Then, with the Chiaroscuros, it was Haydn’s ‘Lark’, Mozart’s Quartet in A, K464 and Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’, all played in ‘period’ style – gut strings, lower bridges, sparing use of vibrato etc. For those who believe that period performance means thin, characterless sound, I can only urge you to listen out for when this performance is broadcast live on Radio 3 later in the year. This is an excitingly spirited group, from whom I hope we hear a lot more.
 

And, finally, special mention must be made of the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s admirable new second violinist. With a thick, dark fringe that, flopping right down to nose level, apparently obscured his view of the score, the general consensus among the audience was that he must simply have known all the music off by heart – only with the occasional flick of his head was he able to catch a glimpse of what was happening on the page. If only, I said to my wife, I could sneak up on stage with a pair of scissors and clear his sightlines. She told me I was showing my age...

Jeremy Pound is the deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine resident. He will be reporting further from the Cheltenham Music Festival over the next couple of weeks