Passion, energy and joy at the Winchester Chamber Music Festival 2023

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: James Gilchrist (tenor), Huw Watkins (piano), David Adams, Lucy Gould, Maia Cabeza (violin), James Toll (violin/viola), Elliot Kempton, Ting-Ru Lai (viola), Kate Gould, Tim Posner (cello), Lumas Winds (Beth Stone [flute], Chris Vettraino [oboe], Johan Stone [French horn], Flo Plane [bassoon], Rennie Sutherland [clarinet]. Also in the Festival: Lenny Sayers (clarinet), Donald Grant (folk violin), Sam Glazer (animateur). St Paul’s Church and the Chapel of St Cross, Winchester. 28.4.2023 to 1.5.2023. (CK)

Kate Gould, Artistic Director of Winchester Chamber Music Festival

For four days over last weekend, music-making of a high order filled the spaces of two Winchester churches, St Paul’s and the Chapel of St Cross, delighting large and appreciative audiences. The impressive roster of string players included principals from the Aurora Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Welsh National Opera and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. I couldn’t get to everything, but the four concerts I did attend were all musical experiences I will not quickly forget.

Last Friday morning (28 April), in conversation with the lady cutting my hair, I let slip that I listen to classical music. After a brief pause she said dubiously ‘Well, it’s relaxing, isn’t it?’ I wonder what she would have made of James Gilchrist’s highly charged performance of Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise later that same day. Disingenuous of me – I know very well what my barber lady was trying to say – but Gilchrist’s performance was so utterly compelling that there was no question of relaxing. With Huw Watkins an attentive accompanist, Gilchrist inhabited each song, expressing its essence not only with his voice but with his whole body. There was no hint of self-conscious theatre about this; it sprang from his own response to Schubert and Muller, fused with a natural impulse to communicate each song, to get it across to us, as totally as possible.

Gilchrist’s singing was always beautiful, with a richly baritonal lower register deepening its expressive reach. He pointed every sharp detail of the poet’s journey for us: cold and comfortless, lightened by an occasional mirage of temporary distraction or peace. For Gilchrist, the cycle is no wan passage towards resignation: it was interesting to hear him speak about this earlier in the day. The answer to the poet’s question to the hurdy-gurdy man in the final song – ‘Strange old man, shall I go with you?’ – is, for Gilchrist, ‘No’; the energy in the later songs – especially, perhaps, Mut – will carry him beyond the old man (whose numb fingers can do no more than mark time) and his journey will continue. As Gilchrist wrote in his revealing programme note, ‘The man is mocked by his youthful vitality. Schubert’s approaching death was not coming in ripe old age. There’s rage here and determination.’

One of the most engaging things about James Gilchrist is the connection he forges with his audience, not least in his care to introduce the music he is about to sing and to help us to understand its meaning. This was equally clear the following afternoon when he performed more Schubert – his extended song Auf dem Strom, with Huw Watkins (piano) and Tim Posner (cello). They made this wonderful song a moving experience, a meditation on loss and time, borne along on rippling piano figurations as familiar places, with their memories of life and love, slip inexorably behind.

At the other end of Saturday’s concert Gilchrist performed Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, in its original version for tenor, piano and string quartet, bringing to it the same qualities that had made his Schubert so compelling.  In his introduction Gilchrist said that the theme governing Vaughan Williams’s choice of poems is the transience of life, and this emerged most movingly from the performance. The feeling in the poems is delicately poised: they are touching, and they are also chilling. Gilchrist held this balance with consummate sensitivity and art, the scales tipping ever so slightly, and rightly, towards the warmth of human feeling. There was powerful drama in Is My Team Ploughing?; In Summertime on Bredon was heartbreakingly done, from those glassy string chords – so clearly Ravel-inspired, and yet so clearly the sound of an English summer – to its dark conclusion.

Schubert and Vaughan Williams were separated by two contrasting pieces. Lumas Winds are an extremely young (they are all still students) and effervescent wind quintet, lively in their performance style and enterprising in their choice of repertoire. Here they presented Poulenc’s Sextet for Winds and Piano (Huw Watkins was having a busy afternoon). They played it crisply and delightfully, each of the winds emerging as a personality in his or her own right. Johan Stone was making such glorious sounds with his French horn that I felt a passing twinge of regret: the obbligato part in Schubert’s Auf dem Strom was originally intended for the horn, and (with no disrespect to Tim Posner’s fine cello playing) it would have been nice to have the chance to hear it.

Huw Watkins then appeared as composer as well as performer. His ten-minute Piano Quartet, written ten years ago, is – in a word – stunning.  The piano acts as disturber and disrupter of the serene discourse of the strings, instigating passages of turbulence; yet serenity is finally restored in bell-like piano sounds. The music has the kind of luminosity one sometimes encounters in Tippett.

Sunday evening’s event was billed as a Gala Concert: it took place in the Chapel of the Hospital of St Cross – surely, with the late sun gilding the stonework, one of the most beautiful places on earth. The music-making more than matched its august surroundings. With Mendelssohn’s Octet providing the concert’s climax, it was a fine idea to begin with Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet: an early work – in the catalogue it neighbours the First Symphony, both written in his late teens. It was new to me; it was astonishing how much of it sounded like the later, tormented Soviet composer. An elegy for a young friend and poet, it was given a passionate and virtuosic performance. A mood of reflective sadness dominated the Prelude, with hauntingly beautiful solos for violin and viola; the players tore into the Scherzo, music of unremitting intensity, sending up a cloud of concentrated and dissonant sound into the high spaces of the Chapel Crossing above their heads.

Purcell’s Fantasia on One Note provided balm for the ears, and an unexpectedly apt and beautiful bridge to the soundworld of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.8: a work at the centre of his canon of quartets, and the best known. Confessional and almost obsessively self-referential, it is beside the point to try spotting the quotations (as one can legitimately do in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben): better to surrender to the inescapable anguish locked into its five movements, especially in a performance as powerful as this. And so, perhaps with relief, to Mendelssohn’s astonishing Octet: as Kate Gould wrote in the programme note, ‘even Mozart had not produced a masterpiece of this stature so young’ (perhaps the enchanting A major Symphony No.29, K201, written when he was 18, is Mozart’s nearest equivalent). It was a joy from start to finish: my abiding memory of the Festival may well be the sight of eight bows at the end raised exultantly into the air.

Monday afternoon, back in St Paul’s Church for the Festival Finale: inspiriting performances of Beethoven’s youthful String Trio in G, Op.9 No.1, and Mendelssohn’s Quintet in B-flat, framing the premiere of Robin Holloway’s Piano Quintet. Only knowing Holloway’s exciting and evocative orchestral works of the 1990s, it was fascinating for me to hear this new piece, introduced by Holloway (80 this year) himself. The music is lean, fresh, astringent, energetic (as I suspect he is): developing as a series of conversations (his word) between various permutations of the five instruments, only coalescing into a quintet in the final Barcarolle, which reaches an unexpectedly gentle and beautiful conclusion.

Among the pieces I missed were quartets by Beethoven and Suk, Barber’s Summer Music, a Huw Watkins premiere (Elegy for Violin and Piano); Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged for string trio; a Masterclass, a Folk Evening led by fiddler Donald Grant, and lively and immersive events for children. For me, for all the diversity of music on offer, the keynotes were youthfulness and joy. Kate Gould, renowned cellist, deserves our gratitude for putting on such an all-embracing Festival with charm and verve.

Chris Kettle        

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