Revolution in the Air on an Idyllic Day at Gregynog Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Beethoven: Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), The Music Room, Gregynog Hall, Newtown, 22.6.2015 (GP)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:  Rondo in A minor, K511
Rondo in D major, K485
Sonata No 8 in A minor, K310
Adagio in B minor, K540
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No 8 in C minor, op. 13 (‘Pathètique’)

Rameau, Montéclair: Les Talens Lyriques [Valérie Gabail (soprano), Gilone Gaubert-Jacques (violin), Lucile Boulanger (viola da gamba), Christophe Rousset (harpsichord, director)], The Music Room, Gregynog Hall, Newtown, 22.6.2015 (GP)


Jean-Philippe Rameau:  Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Premier Concert
Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Deuxième Concert
Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Troisième Concert
Michel Pignolet de Montéclair:  ‘Le Dépit généreux’
Jean-Philippe Rameau:  Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Quatrième Concert
Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Cinquième Concert


Some music festivals seem to operate nothing one might call an artistic policy beyond engaging the best (or at any rate the most reputable) artists their budget will stretch to and then, or so it often seems, leaving them free to play whatever they wish in the way of repertoire. Some other festivals are entirely devoted to music of a particular genre or period (e.g. chamber music, English song, baroque), or even of a single composer (e.g. Haydn, Schubert). Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, their rewards and their downsides. Both can, of course, result in individual concerts of the very highest quality. But the first approach generally results in a festival programme which has little real coherence, in a series of concerts none of which really comments on or responds to (in the listener’s mind) any of its predecessors or successors. The other approach can come to seem restrictive or repetitively narrow, allowing the music to be heard or thought about in a quite limited context. But there is a third way – one exemplified by the Gregynog Festival.

Under the imaginative and – just as important – knowledgeable and efficient direction (though she prefers to speak of ‘curating’ the festival) of Rhian Davies, the Gregynog festival is built around a different broadly conceived ‘theme’ each year. Recent themes have included ‘Pleasure Gardens’ (2010), ‘Venezia’ (2012) and ‘War’ (2014). This year the theme is ‘Revolution’. Publicity for the Festival and its beautifully produced programme, both feature Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting (now in the Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin) of Napoleon Crossing the Alps, so one application of the theme – to the French Revolution and its aftermath – is immediately obvious (which allows, one might say encourages, an anniversary tie-in with the Battle of Waterloo. (Indeed on June 18 the festival included a dinner and a showing of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1970 epic film Waterloo).  The Napoleonic motif was continued on the following day in a concert, under the title ‘Napoleonic composers’, given by that fine ensemble The Revolutionary Drawing Room and including music by Haydn, Viotti, Boccherini, Devienne, Gluck and Gossec. As this list perhaps suggests, Rhian Davies has interpreted ‘Revolution’ (insofar as it relates to the French Revolution) as referring both to the years before and the years after the event itself. Thus music of the Enlightenment figured prominently in this year’s programme, notably in a concert by the Ensemble Amarillis, featuring music by J.C. Bach and François-André Philidor.

But Davies has chosen to interpret ‘revolution’ in several other senses too. Thus a concert given by the Society for Strange and Ancient Instruments included music by composers ranging (chronologically speaking) from Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729) to Louis van Waefelghem (1840-1908) and conceived as a kind of homage to La Société des Instruments Anciens, a pioneering group (of which van Waefelghem was a member) which gave a series of ‘historical’ performances in Paris, in the Salle Pleyel between 1895 and 1901, concerts important to the ‘revolution’ in attitudes to ‘early music’ and its performance. Another musical ‘revolution’, that created by the German harpist George Adam Goepffert’s invention of the single-action pedal harp, which he introduced to Paris in 1749, triggering a great surge in the popularity of the harp and its repertoire; this year’s Gregynog Festival appropriately contained a recital (under the title ‘Harpists and composers from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars’) by harpist Masumi Nagasawa and flautist Rachel Brown, full of unfamiliar music. Some other musical ‘revolutions’ are implicitly alluded to in other concerts, as in a programme of music by Scriabin and those influenced by him, played by Alexander Melnikov and Ensemble Variances or Anne Quéffelec’s recital (‘Satie et compagnie’) containing not only music by Satie but, as its title suggests, also by composers associated with him during his lifetime, including Debussy, Poulenc, Hahn, Gabriel Dupont, Koechlin, Florent Schmitt. Add to these events performances of the sacred music of Charpentier and Du Mont (by Vox Luminis), a recital of French melodies by mezzo Stéphanie d’Oustrac and pianist Pascal Jourdan and a concert of French baroque ‘dance’ music (by The London Handel players and dancers Mary Collins and Stephen Player) and there is no disputing the sheer variety of music on offer at this Festival. Yet everything has links, all is interconnected. So, for example, an afternoon concert on June 21st  – ‘Mozart en Paris’, by Les Folies françoises – included Mozart’s Violin Sonatas in D major, K7 and G major, K9, which were written during Mozart’s first visit to the French capital in 1764. The afternoon concert on the following day, by pianist Kristian Bezudenhout had as one of its centerpieces Mozart’s Piano Sonata No 8 in A minor K310, written during the composer’s second visit to Paris in 1778.

The recital by Kristian Bezuidenhout which included the A minor Sonata was a wholly unqualified joy. And as ‘instructive’ as it was joyful to listen to. Bezuidenhout’s touch was superlative and his musical intelligence, in terms both of detail and of larger structures and patterns was consistently and deeply impressive. He drew some ravishingly beautiful and clear textures from his fortepiano. Without in any way wanting to distract attention from Bezuidenhout’s pianism, it is only fair to say that he couldn’t have produced such a memorable performance without such a fine instrument;  he was playing a copy by Paul McNulty of an 1805 fortepiano by Anton Walter – Mozart loved Walter’s instruments and acquired one in 1782 (Beethoven was another admirer and came close to acquiring one in 1802. Mozart’s son Carl reported that his father “had a special preference” for this instrument and “exclusively used this and no other instrument in all his concerts” whenever possible. The particular instrument we heard in Gregynog (specially brought in from London) is apparently Kristian Bezuidenhout’s favourite amongst fortepianos available in Britain. It was easy to hear why. The performance of the A minor sonata was revelatory. This is a sonata I thought I knew reasonably well, but I heard it with a new freshness and brightness of effect on this occasion. I can only compare the experience of the first sight of a previously familiar painting, now well restored, after the removal of layers of accumulated dirt and varnish or to a landscape – previously half-hidden by mist – now seen beneath a crystalline sky. Travelling back to south Wales the next day I found myself trying to recall a passage in Nicholas Kenyon’s 2005 Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart (a fine book, a gem of concision). Checking on the relevant passage on getting back home, it reads as follows: “Once heard on an early piano, the opening of the A minor sonata may be difficult to accept on a modern instrument. The strident chordal accompaniment sounds fatally weakened if played down as an accompaniment, and the superb coda figure striding over three and a half octaves in the bass lines is tremendous when delineated by the changes in register in the early piano”.

The wonderful limpidity of sound that Kristian Bezuidenhout drew from his fortepiano enabled one to hear so much that is masked or blurred when played (however well) on a modern grand. Another part of the ‘revelation’ came in hearing a performance which was using every resource of the instrument it was given on, rather than a performance on a modern piano, in which much that the instrument can ‘do’ is (or should be!) left unexploited. The sense of how ‘revolutionary’ (that word again) a work this was (not least in terms of how it extended the intellectual and emotional range of the piano sonata) is largely lost when it is heard on the modern concert grand. It was entirely evident here. Both the delicacy of Bezuidenhout’s touch and the responsiveness of his instrument bore rich fruit in the Rondo in D major K485.  Never have I heard a ‘modern’ performance of this piece in which the passages where Mozart requires simultaneous work at bottom and top of the keyboard sound even half as clear, or communicate anything like the same sense of a lucid dialogue. This and the other Mozart pieces which Bezuidenhout played were perhaps not quite so ‘revelatory’ in their impact as the performance of the sonata, if only because none of them were quite such ‘major’ works as this sonata, but the Rondo in A minor K511 which opened the programme certainly benefitted from the quality of the bass sound, solid without the slightest heaviness, crisp and clear at all times. In the Adagio in B minor, K540 (which opened the second half of the recital) Bezuidenhout made the music sing quite beautifully (so much so that the birds outside in the gardens of Gregynog, the windows of the music room being open on a lovely afternoon, seemed moved to contribute their own decorative descants to Mozart’s music! Yet Bezuidenhout also fully articulated the ‘drama’ in the piece (it is not, I suspect, mere chance that this work was written between the Prague and Vienna premieres of Don Giovanni). Players tackling this adagio on a modern concert grand seem to find it necessary to give predominance to either the lyrical or the dramatic element at the expense of the other.

The major work in the second half of Bezuidenhout’s recital was Beethoven’s ‘Pathètique’ Sonata, written in 1797-98). Here, again, McNulty’s copy of the Walter fortepiano had exactly the right sense of scale for the music. The tremolando octaves in the first movement worked particularly well – the clarity making them sound more than vaguely portentous (as they can seem in the muddier bass textures of some performances on a modern grand). There was a delightful kind of lyrical gravity to the following adagio cantabile and in the last movement the arpeggiated figures in the left hand had a remarkable beauty. This whole movement was, for me, quite literally breathtaking – towards its close I found myself struggling for air, as if I had been so rapt by the music that I had temporarily forgotten to breathe!

In short, a remarkable recital. At its end there was a chance to wander in the beautiful grounds of the hall – described by CADW (the Welsh Government’s organization which has responsibility for the historical environment) as “one of the most important parks and gardens in Powys, dating from at least the 1500s”, a chance to listen to the birdsong and to stretch one’s legs on a day of almost perfect weather, as well as to eat and drink before returning to the music room for the second concert of the day, which also featured a major keyboard player, though this time not in a purely solo capacity. In writing his Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Rameau was following the example of Gaspar LeRoux and Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (cf. his 6 Pièces de clavecin en sonates (1734), in writing works for harpsichord with instrumental accompaniment. When Rameau published his collection 1741, his prefatory remarks included the observation that “The success of recently published sonatas which have come out as harpsichord pieces with a violin part, has given me the idea of following much the same plan in the new harpsichord pieces which I am venturing to bring out today. I have given them the form of little suites for harpsichord, violin or flute, and viol or second violin”. One notes the phrases “new harpsichord pieces” and “little suites for harpsichord”. The implications are clear – Rameau saw the harpsichord as having the most important role in these pieces. The phrase “en concerts” might almost be understood as implying that these pieces are miniature harpsichord concertos. In fact, in good performances, some of them are, indeed, dominated by the harpsichord, while in others the violin (and occasionally the violin and viola da gamba together) are allowed to take the spotlight, as it were. Questions of instrumental balance become particularly important to the success of the music, and it came as no surprise that performers as experienced and skilled as these should have largely resolved such questions very happily.

The sense of an instrumental conversation was strong throughout, particularly so, for example, in ‘La pantomime’ from the Quatrième Concert or ‘La Laborde’ from the Deuxième Concert. Rousset’s own work was  every bit as accomplished as one had expected, but he was not a ‘star’ supported by inferiors. Gilone Gaubert-Jacques is an outstanding violinist, as anyone who has heard her as a member of the Quatuor Ruggieri will know very well. The interplay between violin and harpsichord, and the shifting balance between the two instruments, as in the first of the two minuets which close the Deuxième Concert was one of the particular delights of this performance. Rameau’s writing for the viola da gamba is unusually complex compared to most music of this period, but Lucile Boulanger (is she a member of the famous musical family, able to count Lili and Nadia Boulanger as ancestors?) all the demands supremely well, while always functioning as a rhythmic fulcrum for the group as a whole. Rouuset and his fellow instrumentalists were equally at home in the sophisticated music of ‘L’Indiscrète’ (Quatrième Concert) and the faux-rustic rhythms of the two ‘Tambourins’ (Troisième Concert), surefooted at all times, witty when appropriate but also passionate (as in the slow and broken rhythms of ‘la Laborde’ and the elegiac ‘La Livri’ (Premier Concert). Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more persuasive case being made for this slightly problematic music.

The instrumentalists of Les Talens Lyriques were joined by soprano Valérie Gabail for a performance of Michel Pignolet de Montéclair’s cantata Le Dépit généreux. Gabail is a dramatic and charismatic stage presence, who has worked, not only with many major Baroque ensembles and in opera, but also in the area of experimental music and cross-genre media (appearing, for example, as POP-PEA in a video-rock version of Monteverdi’s opera). It comes as no surprise to learn that she began her career as a vocalist, aged 15, singing jazz, since she sings with an emotional directness and vulnerability that one associates more with, say, Billie Holiday, than with most ‘classical’ singers. In this cantata, representing the emotions of a woman betrayed by the man she loves, Gabail was more convincing (one might almost say overwhelming) in the passages of denunciatory anger which open the work than in those of the ‘Air Tendre’ towards its close. Gabail’s vocal power (and accuracy) as well as the absoluteness with which she invests herself in the characterisation of both music and text are intensely impressive, even a little startling to those more attuned to the more ‘polite’ manner which still largely characterizes British interpretations of Baroque music. Later, at the end of the programme, Ms. Gabail returned to the stage for the concert encore, an aria by Campra, sung with the same viocal intensity and commanding presence.

Two very rewarding concerts then. But the music isn’t everything when one goes to this Festival. Many, but by no means all, of the concerts are held at Gregynog itself  – other venues used this year include the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, Powis Castle, St. Nicholas’ Church in Montgomery and the Town Hall of the same town, as well as St. Myllin’s Church, Llanfyllin. These are all interesting venues in their own right and the journeys to and from them traverse some of Wales’ most beautiful landscapes. Rhian Davies has an impressive ability to find ways of grounding this very ‘international’ festival in the locality. For this year’s festival she has followed up the fact that quite a number of Napoleonic prisoners of war were detained, on parole, in the towns of the Welsh borderland. So, for example, the festival programme included a visit to the Council Hall in Llanfyllin which is decorated by wall paintings created by one of those prisoners, Pierre Augeraud; another event – a Workshop in French Baroque Dance – held in Montgomery remembered the presence there of another such prisoner, a dancing master called Monsieur Duracq, “who went back to Paris to learn new steps … and never returned”!

But Gregynog Hall, a fascinating and lovely location remains at the heart of the Festival. There has been a substantial country house at Gregynog since at least the twelfth century. An older house was reworked in the 1840s by the first Baron Sudeley, including some pioneering use of concrete. In 1920 the house was bought by two unmarried sisters, Gwendoline (1882-1951) and Margaret (1884-1963) Davies. They were the granddaughters of David Davies (1818-90), a Welsh industrialist, entrepreneur and Liberal politician. The sisters’ fortune (essentially the product of David Davies’ success) enabled them to assemble a splendid collection of paintings (later bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff), including works by Turner, Millet, Daumier, Corot, Rodin, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Renoir; they also set up the Gregynog Press (Gwasg Gregynog) in 1922, which became one of the major private presses of the last century (I should confess that one of the last books produced by the press, in 2010, was a volume I edited); Gwendoline Davies’ love of music led to her making a large donation in 1914 to establish Wales’ first ‘conservatoire’ in Aberystwyth. The sisters also established a music festival at Gregynog which ran from 1933 to 1938, and which attracted such figures as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Gustav Holst, Adrian Boult and the violinist Jelly d’Arányi; the festival was revived from 1955 to 1961, directed by Ian Parrott and then again in 1988, directed first by Anthony Rolfe Johnson and then by Rhian Davies. Given the role Gregynog has played as a patron of, and home for, the arts, it is wholly appropriate that the Hall should now be home to an exciting modern festival. (And, given its indirect connection with David Davies, it brings us back to ‘Revolution’ again, the Industrial Revolution in Wales!)

Glyn Pursglove

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