United Kingdom Chipping Campden Music Festival  – David Matthews, Chopin, Elgar: Eric Lu (piano), Chipping Campden Festival Academy Orchestra / Thomas Hull (conductor). St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 25.5.2019. (JQ)
David Matthews – Concerto for Orchestra, Op.150 (2018-19) (Festival commission. First performance)
Chopin – Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme, Op.36 ‘Enigma’
Founded as recently as 2002, the Chipping Campden Music Festival may not be the largest among UK festivals in terms of the number of events it stages each year and the town itself, lovely though it is, may not be the most prestigious or prominent among festival locations, yet this festival regularly punches way above its weight. Under the leadership of founder Charlie Bennett, the Festival unfailingly attracts artists of the highest calibre. Just this year, for example, artists have included (in chronological order of appearance): the BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music (review); the London Mozart Players; The Takacs Quartet and Garrick Ohlsson; Roderick Williams (review); Paul Lewis, the Festival president; Dame Sarah Connolly; Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin; Steven Osborne. That’s just a selection of the 2019 performers but this year’s line-up is typical; indeed, many of the artists I have just named are regular visitors to the Festival. For the concluding concert, the 2019 Festival achieved a double coup by engaging the winner of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition and by staging the world premiere of a new orchestral work by one of Britain’s leading composers.
This concert was the last of three given during the Festival by the Festival Academy Orchestra. Established in 2008, the CCFAO seems to me to be a wholly admirable part of the Festival. The orchestra was profiled in a most interesting DVD, which is well worth seeing (review). In brief, the Orchestra is comprised of seasoned professional orchestral players and graduate players selected by audition – there’s a 50/50 split and the young players sit side-by-side with the professionals. The orchestra convenes during the Festival and works intensively on its programmes under the leadership of Thomas Hull. In a programme note, David Matthews revealed that he had respected that 50/50 split by sometimes passing a solo line from the first to the second instrument (for example the flutes) and vice versa.
His Concerto for Orchestra is in three movements, ‘Spring Dances’, ‘Nocturne and Dawn Chorus’ and ‘Summer Dances’. By my watch, the work played for about 22 minutes. It is scored for double woodwind (plus a third clarinet), four horns, two each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (1 player) and strings. All but one of David Matthews’ nine symphonies have been recorded and I’ve heard all of those, most recently the highly attractive Ninth Symphony (review). As luck would have it, the one symphony so far to have eluded me – because no recording is yet available – is the Eighth. That’s ironic because Matthews says that the outer movements of his new Concerto are related to the finale of the Eighth ‘and its overall cheerful mood.’ Tonight’s new work displayed two traits that I have found to be pretty consistent in the music by him that I have heard: an imaginative command of orchestral colour, and fine melodic invention.
‘Spring Dances’ began with lilting material in compound time, punctuated by emphatic brass interjections. The lilting music seemed to me to have a pastoral feel to it. Matthews gave good solo opportunities to several instruments, all of which were relished by the players. A quicker episode in triple time was more energetic, but even so melody lay at the heart of the music. The return to compound time led to a quiet end. Near the start of ‘Nocturne and Dawn Chorus’ we heard a lovely, extended passage on muted strings. In these pages I had the impression that Matthews was painting an aural picture of a warm night under an ink-blue dark sky. This episode included some ravishing violin solos which were wonderfully played by Ruth Rogers, who led the orchestra throughout the concert in an exemplary way, her playing full of animation and enthusiasm. In the middle of the movement the clarinets led off a substantial section in which the woodwinds represented the songs of various birds, their singing cushioned on a bed of soft string tone; this was most effective and imaginative. The last movement, ‘Summer Dances’ again began with music in compound time – bucolic music of the 21st century. The clarinet then led off a perkier section and as the movement unfolded all the instruments – including the tuba – were put through their paces. A quieter passage for strings, including a rhapsodic violin solo, seemed to me to be quintessentially English in tone. The movement – and the work – finished ebulliently, with wind and brass to the fore.
At a first hearing this Concerto for Orchestra impressed me as a notable piece. It is an inventive composition and one that is highly attractive. I should imagine it’s challenging to play but the smiles on the faces of the orchestra at the end suggested to me that the players had enjoyed the music – frankly, I would be amazed if it were otherwise. Under the precise direction of Thomas Hull, the CCFAO gave an assured and committed premiere. The composer was present and he and his new work were greeted most warmly by the audience. The commission was funded by a resident of Chipping Campden, Mr Roger Grenville-Jones. Thanks to his generosity and the foresight of the Festival in commissioning the piece, we have this Concerto for Orchestra, which is a work of genuine substance. I hope that other conductors and orchestras will soon take it up
The second concerto of the evening presented an opportunity to hear Eric Lu, the twenty-one-year-old Chinese-American pianist who last year won the prestigious Leeds International Piano Competition. Listening to his performance of the first Chopin concerto tonight, it was not hard to understand why he was successful in Leeds and in other competitions. In the first movement, Allegro maestoso, Thomas Hull shaped the extended orchestral introduction very well. Once Lu started to play, I was struck by the grace and elegance of his playing – and the strength of it, too, when required. He was very much in tune with the poetry of Chopin’s writing and I admired many touches of imaginative phrasing. The passages where virtuoso finger work was required were just as successful. Under Thomas Hull’s watchful direction, the orchestra gave him excellent support. In the Romance second movement Chopin is in poetic vein and Lu made many passages seem like dreamy nocturnes. I loved the improvisatory air that he brought to Chopin’s decorative writing. The orchestra played a full part in putting across the poetry and I especially enjoyed several cantabile contributions from the principal bassoon (John McDougall). The movement as a whole was refined and beautiful. The finale was delivered with high spirits, Lu’s pianism often playful. In this movement he displayed an abundance of light-fingered virtuosity.
This was a very enjoyable account of the concerto. In response to enthusiastic applause, Eric Lu gave us more Chopin as an encore: an intense and poetic performance of the so-called ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, Op.28 No.15.
The concert ended as it began, with a virtuoso piece for orchestra by an English composer. Thomas Hull led a fine performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The string section of the CCFAO is, of necessity, quite small; a larger group simply could not fit onto the stage in St. James’ Church. However, even though the brass and woodwind sections were full-sized, I found that I could hear the strings without any difficulty throughout the concert, even in Elgar’s most fully-scored passages. That’s a tribute to the musicians, of course, but it also speaks to the excellence of the acoustics in the church. The Elgar performance was skilled and displayed real empathy with the music. I appreciated the pert woodwind playing in Variation III, ‘R. B. T.’ and the dashing rendition of Variation VII, ‘Troyte’. Very rightly, Thomas Hull did not make ‘Nimrod’ into an elegy; that wasn’t Elgar’s intention. Here, the music unfolded nobly but Hull made it flow until a noble climax was achieved. The little hesitations of Variation X, ‘Dorabella’, came across charmingly, while in Variation XII, ‘B.G.N.’ the cellos sang out with burnished tone. Elgar was a composer often plagued by self-doubt but the self-portrait that is Variation XIV shows no lack of confidence. Rather, the music is bold and confident and that’s how it came across in a full-hearted performance that set the seal on an excellent concert.
So, the 2019 Chipping Campden Festival concluded on a high note with a richly rewarding and highly enjoyable concert.