Bach, birdsong and bacon butties: an early start to the Romsey Chamber Music Festival 2024

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various – Romsey Chamber Music Festival 2024 [1]: Sophia Jin (soprano), Thomas Guthrie (baritone), Imogen Whitehead (trumpet), Laura Rickard, Emma Roijackers, Luke Hsu (violin), José Nunes, Joseph Griffin, Coby Mendez (viola), Rainer Crosett, Lydia Hillerudh (cello), James Trowbridge (double bass), Johan Löfving (guitar), Jennifer Walsh, Michael Cohen-Weissert, Caspar Vos (piano). Houghton Lodge Gardens, Romsey Abbey, St. Mark’s Church, Ampfield, United Reformed Church, Romsey, 24-30.6.2024. (CK)

Thursday evening concert (27.6)  at the Romsey Chamber Music Festival 2024

24.6.2024 – Bach, Britten
25.6.2024 – Tchaikovsky, Räisänen, Chausson, Janáček
26.6.2024 – Bach, Hindemith
27.6.2024 – Snape, Bray, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven
28.6.2024 – Schubert
28.6.2024 – Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Simpson, Janáček
28.6.2024 – Schoenberg
29.6.2024 – Family Concert
29.6.2024 – Szymanowski, Alma Mahler, Higdon, Schumann
30.6.2024 – Beamish, Mills, Harding, Dodgson, Smyth, Maxwell Davies, Schumann
30.6.2024 – Scelsi, Purcell, Schubert, Korngold

Laura Rickard, founder and Artistic Director of the Romsey Chamber Music Festival – now in its sixth year – had devised a mouthwatering programme of music under the general title ‘Of Love and Madness’. Some might have been forgiven for assuming that ‘Madness’ referred to the opening concert: a Midsummer morning cello recital at sunrise by the river Test, in the beautiful gardens of Houghton Lodge.

The concert was nevertheless a sellout: by 6am a hundred people armed with picnic chairs had assembled, undeterred by the blanket of fog that robbed sunrise of its splendour. There was splendour enough, in truth, in American cellist (and Romsey regular) Rainer Crosett’s playing.

What better way to begin the day (and the Festival) than the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No.1?

Gently improvisatory, undulating, in Rainer’s hands it sounded as natural as the river flowing behind him, accompanied at a discreet distance by birdsong. His playing of the five dances that follow the Prelude was equally thoughtful, marked by spontaneity and freedom: nothing was ever forced. The concluding Gigue was a joy. Whenever I hear this suite in the future, I think it will bring this experience to my memory.

A heron flew past along the river as Rainer embarked on the Canto primo of Britten’s challenging Cello Suite No.1 (Britten adds three ‘Canto’ movements to Bach’s six-movement structure). After the quirky energy of the Fuga came the lovely Lamento, angular, eloquent – so much so that Rainer seemed almost to make his cello speak: and as the slow, sonorous music unfolded pale sunshine came through the lifting mist. This was playing of real personality: declamatory pizzicato in the Serenata, strongly accented rhythm in the Marcia, the Canto Terzo almost like a distant trumpet. Then the calm, beautiful Bordone, like a ghostly folk dance, faintly reminiscent of Sumer is icumen in, which turns up so memorably in Britten’s Spring Symphony. The final scurrying Moto perpetuo buzzed like the mosquito you can’t get rid of; the ending was a tour de force.

If I describe Rainer’s playing as meditative, contemplative, it might suggest that it is lacking in fire, which is emphatically not the case; it might reflect his total absorption in the music he is playing, or the effect his music-making has on me as I listen. Whatever the reason, the magic descended (Sweet Test run softly till I end my song, as Spenser almost wrote). And then, courtesy of the Houghton Lodge kitchen, it was time for the bacon butties.

Tuesday lunchtime concert (25.6) at the Romsey Chamber Music Festival 2024

There was another very full house in Romsey Abbey for Tuesday’s lunchtime concert. It was bookended by pieces in which the Festival Artists were joined by  young players from Hampshire Music Service: the first, Tchaikovsky’s arrangement of his Andante Cantabile for solo cello and strings, led by Lydia Hillerudh, sounded gorgeous in the Abbey acoustic; the last, the concluding Presto from Janáček’s youthful Suite for String Orchestra, sounded fresh and exciting, combining the open-air innocence of Dvořák with hints of his mature style – the angularity and attack of some of the string writing looked forward (perhaps I am being fanciful here) to Taras Bulba, forty years later.

The Tchaikovsky was followed by Tomi Räisänen’s Midsommar(so)natten for two violins and tape: inspired by the films of Ingmar Bergman, it very appropriately kept us on edge. The two violins (Luke Hsu and Emma Roijackers) played mostly col legno and pizzicato, while the tape supplied a relentless tick-tock of tinkling bells, clock chimes and an array of gongs to create a bare and powerful sonic landscape through which time, like Marvell’s winged chariot, remorselessly hurries us (And yonder all before us lie/Deserts of vast eternity). The punning title perhaps suggests that we should not take the piece entirely seriously: as the composer (who revised the piece for this concert, at Laura’s request) put it, ‘Maybe this piece is just a trip to the Nordic midsummer night with its own spells and rituals.’

The musical high point of the concert was Chausson’s Poème, in a version for violin, string quartet and piano, played with impassioned eloquence by Laura, accompanied by Emma Roijackers and Luke Hsu (violins), José Nunes (viola) and Lydia Hillerudh (cello); the piano (Michael Cohen-Weissert) was used sparingly, enriching the texture at key moments. It is a marvellous piece, Turgenev-inspired, unashamedly Romantic: and although Chausson himself did not get out of the nineteenth century alive, the music’s lushness seemed almost to whet our appetite for Verklärte Nacht later in the week.

I didn’t get to Wednesday’s Masterclass in St. Mark’s Church, Ampfield, though I heard someone describe Luke Hsu’s work on the Hindemith Sonata for solo violin as ‘unforgettable’. On Thursday the Festival moved to its home, Romsey’s United Reformed Church, for ‘Love is merely a madness’, a programme behind which the shade of Shakespeare hovered: faintly, perhaps, in the main work – Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op.18 No.1 (Beethoven told a friend that when composing the slow movement he had the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet in mind). Luke Hsu and Emma Roijackers (violins), José Nunes (viola) and Lydia Hillerudh (cello) played this movement with sustained poignancy, some beautiful soft playing and lovely dynamic contrasts: with this level of concentration the dramatic pauses were electrifying. and the surrounding movements had all the Haydnesque energy and charm you could wish for. There is something about the music-making of all these players – their whole-body commitment, their evident joy in playing together – that makes me listen to them with a permanent smile on my face.

Shakespeare was more overtly present in the preceding pieces. Erin Snape’s Mrs Siddons for string quartet and tape set Judi Dench’s voice (‘Out, damned spot’) and the screaming of a child against live string sounds – lyrical one moment, like an Elizabethan consort the next, fading away in violin harmonics: the effect is disturbing, but the tone is confident – the composer, still in her early twenties, made a strong impression in less than three minutes. Charlotte Bray’s That Crazed Smile for piano trio is about twice as long; it evokes the dream-like, spellbound state of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in woozy atonal piano sounds, flecks and dabs on violin and cello – strangely gorgeous (I thought, rather improperly, of a marriage between Webern and Ravel, then of perfumed Szymanowski as Laura’s violin took flight). After a busy section where the pianist hammers fortissimo chords from the extreme ends of his compass the music fades from hearing on a repeated phrase… dreamlike indeed.

We were back on familiar, less spellbound territory with a rousing arrangement (by Vladimir Mendelssohn) of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, performed by Emma and Laura (violins), José (viola), Rainer and Lydia (cellos), James Trowbridge (double bass) and Michael Cohen-Weissert (piano). They made a magnificent job of it: the only thing lacking was a pair of cymbals.

Brief I must be about Thomas Guthrie’s remarkable performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin on Friday lunchtime, accompanied by Laura and Luke (violins), José (viola), Lydia (cello), James (double bass) and Johan Löfving, whose guitar added an aptly serenade-like timbre to the ensemble. Thomas is a crusader for informal performance, ‘intended to bring people together in real life situations to feel connected, imbued with a sense of belonging and shared moments, and embraced by love, humour and human warmth’. With his beautiful voice and his engaging manner he personifies this approach: barriers tumble as he uses whatever he needs to tell the story. There was even a canopy of leaves: it was the double bass player’s occasional duty to make them rustle gently. Guthrie made something meaningful for both old and young out of Schubert’s song-sequence about a boy who drowns himself for unrequited love: the gallery was full of Romsey Abbey Primary School children, and they enjoyed every moment.

Another tragic love story inspired Janáček’s first String Quartet, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, the main work in Friday evening’s concert, which I missed; I can imagine the intensity achieved by these young players in this harrowing work. I was also sorry to miss Luke and Michael’s performance of Mark Simpson’s passionate An Essay of Love: I have compensated myself with watching the dedicatees, Tom Poster and Elena Urioste, playing it on YouTube (strongly recommended). I was there, though, for the late evening performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in its original form for string sextet, performed by Laura and Emma (violins), José Nunes and Joseph Griffin (violas), Rainer and Lydia (cellos). It was an excellent idea to have an English translation of Richard Dehmel’s poem read (beautifully, by Rainer) before the performance.

I have heard this piece played for seamless beauty of sound: but these players were having none of that. They dug in, taking us deep into the lacerating nightmare of the woman’s guilt; and when transfiguration came it was not spiritualised, but still physical, immediate, passionate. I remember my brother saying, as we came out from a performance of a similarly powerful Expressionist piece, that he felt as though someone had stuck a wooden spoon in his subconscious and stirred it round. It was like that.

(To be concluded in a separate review)

Chris Kettle

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