Anglo-European Harmony in Chipping Campden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Mozart: Ruth Rogers (violin), Mark Padmore (tenor), Paul Gardham (horn), Chipping Campden Festival Academy Orchestra, Thomas Hull (conductor), St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 14.5.2013. (RJ)

Haydn: Symphony No 96 in D
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Op 31
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Mozart: Symphony No 39 in E flat major K543

Ravel, Enescu, Debussy, Brahms: Elisabeth Leonskaya (piano), St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 17.5.2013 (RJ)
Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Enescu: Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor Op 24
Debussy: 3 Préludes
Brahms: Sonata No 3 in F minor

It had not been my intention to review any of the Academy concerts at the Chipping Campden International Music Festival for this website. In the past I have praised the Festival organisers’ initiative in forming an orchestra comprising established musicians and recent graduates from British conservatoires on a 50:50 basis. Other such schemes have fallen by the wayside, but this one, now in its sixth year, goes from strength thanks to Thomas Hull, who succeeds in rapidly moulding a collection of disparate individuals into a coherent whole – though I suspect that the orchestra’s leader, Ruth Rogers, also offers considerable input.

However, I felt this concert deserved a mention because among the plethora of Continental composers featured in the Festival it was good to see English composers given performances which really stood out. That does not imply that the playing of the Haydn and Mozart symphonies in this concert was run of the mill; indeed both benefited from confident, lively, fresh performances. However on this occasion they took a back seat; they were the finely wrought gilt frames surrounding two masterpieces from the English school.

Ruth Rogers seems to spend so much time leading orchestras these days that it is easy to forget how excellent a soloist she is. Her performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending was one of the best I have ever heard – highly evocative, impeccably phrased and ending in a whisper – which sent the spirit soaring into the air like a lark. I wondered if she had been awakened by the song of a lark that very morning in the Cotswold countryside. Some warm and beautifully controlled playing from the strings of the Academy Orchestra made the experience all the more memorable.

There was also atmosphere a-plenty in Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in which the solo horn of Paul Garham, using natural harmonics, evoked a sense of mystery and anticipation for the song settings that followed. Mark Padmore, who had sung Beethoven, Schumann and Britten’s Winter Words the previous evening, was in his element, imbuing each of the songs with its unique character. The interweaving of horn and voice caused a frisson, especially in Tennyson’s Nocturne where the sound of a bugle reverberating within castle walls and dying away was compellingly portrayed. In the medieval Lyke Wake Dirge with its wonderful verse Mark Padmore gave an intense and dramatic performance in a high tenor voice as he pleaded for deliverance from purgatory to the accompaniment of a funeral march

Ben Jonson’s perky Hymn to Diana with its pizzicato accompaniment offered a measure of light relief, after which Keats’ sonnet O soft embalmer of the still midnight showed Padmore’s velvety voice at its most sensitive, offering a measure of peace and consolation after the more disturbing moments of the song cycle. As the solo horn, now in the far distance and out of sight, rounded off this impressive work with a repeat of the introduction it felt as if one had undergone a life-changing experience.

Ruth Rogers and Mark Padmore may not yet have reached the status of musical legend, but Elizabeth Leonskaya most definitely has. A Russian child prodigy whose musical development was shaped by the great Sviatoslav Richter – she often played duets with him – she is perhaps the last of the great Russian school of pianists and therefore an appearance by her represented a significant coup for the organisers of the Chipping Campden Festival.

Her recital began with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales – a title taken from two sets of waltzes by Schubert. There the similarity ends, for the opening waltz, violent, dissonant and acerbic, came as a shock to the system. (No wonder the work provoked such an adverse reaction when it was first performed.) The second waltz was a much slower, emotional affair, played with affection, while there was a distinctly Oriental feel to the third. As Leonskaya worked her way through all eight of the pieces one could not help calling to mind Ravel’s other study of this dance form, La Valse, with its ever changing textures and melodies floating in and out.

It felt as if one was floating in the slow first movement of the Enescu sonata where there seemed to be no substantial ideas or themes to catch hold of or develop – merely impressions. (At least Debussy normally obliges with descriptive titles to his pieces.) The second movement, a scherzo, was much more intelligible – a rhyhmic, almost wild, perpetuum mobile with syncopations, cross accents and jazz elements executed with tremendous vigour and energy. In the slow finale the fluidity of the first movement returned, but by now the structures were more intelligible and the movement grew in intensity only to diminish to a soft, gentle close.

After mystifying us with Enescu Elisabeth Leonskaya brought us Debussy, beginning with Le vent dans la plaine in which you could hear the breezes and sudden gusts rather than the piano itself, and then a delightful rendition of La fille aux cheveux de lin. The sequence ended with a pyrotechnic display, Feux d’artifice, a riot of glissandos, fast scales, repeated notes and huge chords given a virtuoso performance.

The recital ended with the Sonata No 3 by the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms which demonstrated just why he impressed the Schumanns so much. It also enabled one to appreciate the breadth of Leonskaya’s musicianship. The first movement was suitably majestic but tempered with some sunny lyrical movements, and the calmer nocturne with its romantic connotations and moonlight beguiled the ear. The bouncing scherzo was full of energy with a contrasting hymn-like melody in the trio. The Intermezzo had very much the feel of a funeral march with muffled drums in the background – a premonition of death perhaps. But then it was on to the finale (the traditional sort of finale – unlike Enescu’s) with plenty of contrasting dynamics, colour and opportunities for virtuoso display which served to confirm Leonskaya’s reputation as one of the foremost pianists of our time.

Roger Jones