Variety and Intriguing Juxtapositions at 2012 Gower Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Variety and Intriguing Juxtapositions at 2012 Gower Festival: Gower Festival, Gower Peninsula, South Wales, 16-19.7.2012.

Daniel Jones, Bartok, Beethoven, Scriabin, Rachmaninov: Llyr Williams
Beethoven, Ravel: Henschel Quartet
Traditional Spanish and Mexican: Morgan Szymanski
MacMillan, Turnage, Simpson, Ireland, Brahms: Mark Simpson, Kate Whitley

The first three concerts in this year’s Gower Festival were all dedicated to the memory of Gareth Walters, who died in May. He had been the Festival’s artistic director for many years, and had worked tirelessly and with great generosity to ensure the continuing high standards of the event. An extremely talented musician himself, he was an astute judge of the talents of others, spotting and promoting numerous young artists and ensembles very early in their careers when others might have hesitated – I think in particular of the Belcea Quartet, and of the soprano Lucy Crowe: his will be a hard act to follow.

Llyr Williams, who as the festival’s patron gave the opening recital, recalled how Gareth Walters had asked him to play some pieces by Daniel Jones, the Swansea composer whose centenary falls this year, and who himself had been closely involved with the festival in its early years. Williams paired several of Jones’s bagatelles with some by Bartok – an intriguing juxtaposition which certainly suggested some spiky rhythmic affinities, although melodically the (very attractive) Jones pieces seemed to owe more to Grieg, or perhaps de Falla. Williams’s other, grander juxtaposition saw Beethoven’s Moonlight played against Scriabin’s second sonata, written on his honeymoon by the Black Sea and clearly inspired by nocturnal light on the surging water. This was a quite sensational performance, the best I have ever heard of this work, the silvery colouring and deep forward propulsion beautifully articulated. Rachmaninov’s Sonata no. 2 was scarcely less magnificent – Williams made this Russian Romantic repertoire sound as if it was written especially for him, a perhaps surprising reflection given his reputation for a certain austerity in his performing demeanour. But really nothing should surprise us about one of the leading pianists of our time.

The Henschel Quartet the following night also played Beethoven – the Razumovsky, op. 59 no. 2, a work of heroic proportions and strenuousness with a beautiful, prayer-like slow movement and a furiously virtuosic finale: all managed with grace, deep feeling and reserves of power. The same combination served the Henschels equally well in Ravel’s quartet, where they deftly negotiated the languid outdoor elegance which so many English composers from Vaughan Williams onwards tried hard to emulate. They must be one of the most accomplished quartets on the circuit, never afraid to take risks with their playing, never settling for routine versions of the standard repertoire.

I also greatly enjoyed Morgan Szymanski’s guitar recital a day later – this too largely made up of standard repertoire from Spain and his native Mexico, with some unusual finds thrown in: all of it stirringly evocative, whether of nocturnal secrecy or passionate argument. Few instruments can beat the guitar for conveying abruptness of mood-change, from nostalgic languishing to hair-raising excitement – although hearing the clarinettist Mark Simpson play the next evening I started to think it might be a close-run thing.

Sarah Williamson and John Reid, the scheduled artists, were unfortunately unable to appear, but Simpson and his accompanist Kate Whitley stood in at very short notice and performed a very powerful programme, of huge physicality and violent contrast of shade and dynamic. Not your usual charming clarinet recital: it was clear that contemporary composers like MacMillan, Turnage and, on this occasion, Simpson himself, are attracted to the instrument not least for the suddenness of its expressive range, balmy to raucous and back in a breath. The sonatas Simpson and Whitley played by Howells and Ireland were themselves surprisingly forceful and modernistic by those composers’ usual standards, and even Brahms was given what you might call the twenty-first century treatment. These are two remarkable and innovative young musicians of enormous promise – precisely the kind the festival under Gareth Walters was most keen to encourage.

Neil Reeve