Splendid Summer Music-Making on the Gower Peninsular

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Florilegium: Music from the courts of Louis XIV and XV, St Peter’s, Newton, 12. 7. 2013

Boris Giltburg (piano), St John’s, Gowerton, 16. 7. 2013
Schumann – Carnaval
Prokofiev – Sonata no. 1
Rachmaninov – Études-tableaux Op. 39 no. 2
Liszt – Sonata in B minor

Sitkovetsky Trio, St Cenydd’s, Llangennith, 17 .7. 2013
Suk – Elegy
Mendelssohn -Piano Trio in C minor
Brahms – Piano Trio in B major

Quartetto di Cremona, St Rhidian’s, Llanrhidian, 24. 7. 2013
Haydn – Quartet in G major Op. 77 no. 1
Verdi – Quartet in E minor
Beethoven – Quartet in C minor Op. 131

Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, Robert Marshall (piano), David John (conductor), All Saints’, Oystermouth, 3.8.2013
Brahms – Academic Festival Overture
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue,
Smetena -Vltava from Ma Vlast,
Tchaikovsky – Waltz and Polonaise from Eugene Onegin,
Nutcracker Suite

There has been plenty of evidence recently of thriving, varied and dynamic musical life in the Swansea area. This year’s Gower Festival was the last to be organised by Gareth Walters before he died last year, and it was a fitting tribute: two weeks of outstanding performances from both established and emerging artists, which is exactly what the Festival was designed to showcase. The new artistic director is Gordon Back, Professor of Piano at the Guildhall School and very well known as a jurist on many international competitions; I am sure that in his hands future programmes will be as varied and innovative as ever.

I saw four concerts: Florilegium first, in a set of French baroque suites. As fitted such a fine and beautifully balanced ensemble, their playing was perfectly inward with the character and shape of this music and its range of moods, each fully imagined. For an encore they played a piece from Bolivia, a country where the group has played and taught extensively while researching the virtually forgotten music in various cathedral archives; this short piece rather fascinatingly combined native forcefulness with a sense of courtly European reining-in, all rather provocatively wistful. In the suites Florilegium played, by Leclair, Rébel, Couperin and others, the alternation of mood was like a frieze painting where one could pause to consider a separate small area before moving to the next.

Schumann’s Carnaval, which the Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg played a few days later, is also full of fluctuating moods, but this time with a sense of the tumbling-over of one mood into another, so that hope is never entirely free from anxiety, or vice versa. Giltburg, fresh from his victory at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, changed his programme at the last minute into one heroic enough almost to have taken the roof off Gowerton’s sturdy Victorian church. Carnaval was beautifully delicate, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov suitably stormy, and Liszt’s B minor sonata showed his full virtuosic and musical range. He sits bent so low at the piano that at times his forelock was almost brushing the keys, his hands like the talons of a bird of prey, grasping the notes before they could escape, a slightly unnerving experience to watch, but remarkable to hear.

Two young chamber groups were equally impressive. The Sitkovetsky Trio, formed at the Yehudi Menuhin School, played two of the grandest works in the piano trio repertoire: Mendelssohn’s C minor and Brahms’ B major, works both of which contrive an almost orchestral sound from limited resources. I thought their performance quite brilliant, particularly in the rapt slow movement of the Brahms and in all the passages where the cello had the lead. They finely captured Mendelssohn’s scurrying elfin scherzo and delicately contrasted it with their playing of Brahms’s slightly more heavy-footed attempt to emulate it in his own scherzo.

Finally the Quartetto di Cremona, rapidly making a big name for themselves and rightly so: up with the best of the many superb quartets the Festival has hosted. Their Haydn was crisp and clean – so many quartets start their programmes with Haydn, and you can tell immediately from this whether you’re going to enjoy the next hour and a half. Their performance of the little-heard quartet by Verdi, born a few miles up the road from Cremona, made as persuasive a case for it as you would expect. It was bold of them to tackle Beethoven’s C minor op. 131 at such an early stage in their collective career, but it was magnificent: played simply, without fuss or excessive reverence, allowing the phrases to breathe, and with stamina to spare. I shall be investing in their complete Beethoven recordings, due shortly.

A fortnight after this festival closed, as part of the excellent summer season organised at All Saints’ by the Oystermouth Music Society, the Mumbles Symphony Orchestra played to a gratifyingly large audience – the Gower Festival concerts were all pretty well full, despite the difficult times. Conductor David John put together a popular programme, including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, very impressively played by Robert Marshall, who immediately afterwards and with becoming modesty took his place as third flute for the second half of the concert. The orchestra is well established now, and as a mark of this has been invited by the Friends of the Swansea Festival to perform this autumn in place of the usual touring orchestras, the Brangwyn Hall being closed for refurbishment and the Festival running on a reduced scale. The MSO will play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the excellent Swiss violinist Melinda Stocker, daughter of the great cellist Markus Stocker, and reprise the Kalinnikov symphony they performed so effectively earlier this year. In this recent performance, Ma Vlast had bounce and uplift, Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture vigour. The Tchaikovsky sequence, dances from Eugene Onegin and Nutcracker, was just as irresistible as one would hope, the violins in particular finding a lovely lilt for the Waltz of the Flowers.

Neil Reeve