Cheltenham Music Festival: An Eruption of New Music at Cheltenham


  Andrzej Panufnik, Roxanna Panufnik: Brodsky Quartet, Pittville Pump Room, 5.7.2014 (RJ)

Graham Fitkin, Michael Zev Gordon, Tom Stewart, Piers Hellawell, Arlene Sierra, Gavin Higgins: Fidelio Trio, Pittville Pump Room, 5.7.2014 (RJ)

 Premieres are coming thick and fast at Cheltenham these days with five on one day, of which I managed to hear just three.

In the first – Memories of my Father (commissioned by the Brodsky Quartet) – Roxanna Panufnik celebrates her father Sir Andrzej Panufnik whose centenary falls this year. In conversation she remembered him as “an unconditionally loving father with a wicked sense of humour”. He was also a great lover of early music and this is reflected in the opening movement of her work entitled O Tu Andrzey which invoked the haunting music of Gesualdo with its viol-like textures. The second movement, Greek Photostory, is a much more relaxed affair recalling holidays in Greece when the family would re-enact Greek legends for her mother to photograph. Imaginative, dreamy cameos based on Greek myths are connected by a recurring rondo theme based on the rebetika folk music which they would have encountered in the local tavernas.

Earlier the Brodsky Quartet had reminded the audience of Panufnik’s own originality with his String Quartet No 3 composed  as a test piece for the 25th London International String Quartet Competition. Each of the five short movements is a study focusing on a particular discipline in string playing, yet the music amounts to far more that. In 1990 after an exile of nearly 40 years he had returned to his native Poland and this work, composed in the final year of his life, reflects the character of different regions of the country.  It is a work in which he seems to bury the demons of the past and so unlike his Heroic Overture of 1952 composed in Poland and played on the first day of the Festival. Based on the patriotic song Warszawianka the Overture is an outpouring of defiance with gritty, disturbing undercurrents expertly realised by Kirill Karabits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The afternoon recital by the versatile Fidelio Trio was devoted to music from the 21st century beginning with Graham Fitkin’s Lens of 2004. This starts with a series of six note rising motifs on the piano with the strings eventually joining in with a more sustained line of melody. In the third movement the piano provides a robust accompaniment to the elegiac cello and reflective violin.

Michael Zev Gordon’s Roseland for cello and piano, premiered at Cheltenham in 2008, describes itself as a series of fragments in search of a centre. A dreamy, deeply felt piece it proceeds to a quiet close. Very different was Tom Stewart’s Flying Kites; Concentric Ceilings, receiving its premiere, in which thecello in particular jostles for space in the sky. Somehow the piano acts as a counterweight pulling the other instruments down.

Piers Hellawell’s Etruscan Games from 2007 consists of three short movements focusing on one of the instruments of the trio and a more extended movement in which all three revisit the previous material in a” turbulent confluence”, to quote the composer. By contrast, Arlene Sierra, whose Butterflies Remember a Mountain was premiered at Cheltenham last Thursday, draws her inspiration from the natural world in the three movement Avian Mirrors. In the first movement Greeting bird calls are answered in quick succession while Reflection takes simple melodic figures and inverts them. The work concludes with the aptly titled Display with its flamboyant virtuosity.

We normally associate ruins with the ancient temples and monuments of Greece and Rome but Gavin Higgins reminds us decay is all around us and even great industrial manufacturing centres have seen better days. The Ruins of  Detroit, also a premiere, draws its inspiration from  photographs of that city by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. The faded glory of the ballroom in the Lee Plaza Hotel is depicted in the hazy veiled sound world of a disembodied waltz, the industry of the city is represented in a rhythmic section which screams to a climax, and eventually the piano returns against the misty drone of the strings. This was a highly evocative and disturbing peice which offered an excellent climax to this fascinating recital.

It is encouraging to see that the Cheltenham Music Festival is remaining true to its policy formulated at the first Festival in 1945 of promoting contemporary composers – not only through premieres but also repeat performances of their music.


Roger Jones 

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