Cheltenham 2012 Goes onto a War Footing

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Cheltenham 2012 Goes onto a War Footing

In 2014 Britain will be reliving the centenary of the start of the start of World War One. Cheltenham Music Festival, however, has stolen a march on everyone else by making it one of the themes of this year’s programme. There was some logic behind the move since that War happens to have coincided with the final five years of Debussy, the 150th anniversary of whose birth falls this year.

The core of the celebration was a series of five “Time Capsule” chamber recitals each devoted to music composed throughout Europe in a particular year and devised by the violinist Katherine Gowers. To put the music into a historical and artistic context each recital started with a news bulletin prepared and read by newscaster Julia Somerville.

The 1914 Recital, for instance, featured music by compsers as diverse as Janáček, Kodály, Webern, Ravel and (perhaps surprisingly) Scott Joplin. Two remarkable Norwegian musicians, Henning Kraggerud (violin) and Christian Ihle Hadland (piano) gave an excellent account of Janáček’s Violin Sonata, of which the Ballada and Adagio were composed at the beginning of the War and the other two movements not until 1919. Katherine Gowers (violin) joined Adrian Brendel (cello) in Kodály’s Duo for violin and cello, Op 7, notable for its plaintive cello solo in the slow movement and the rhythmic finale in which the performers appeared to be sparring with each other.

The “Time Capsule” recitals were the obvious place for the three sonatas (out of a projected six) which Debussy finished during the War. 1915 brought together Emily Beynon (flute), Jennifer Stumm (viola) and Sally Pryce in the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, while Steven Isserlis and Connie Shih dealt with the Sonata for cello and piano. This particular recital ended with Max Reger’s Clarinet Quintet in A, played by the Esher Quartet and Matthew Hunt, which some listeners found boring, others very amiable. There were few hints in Reger’s music that a war was being waged: it was essentially a creation of the Late Romantic period. The same could be said of Bruch’s String Quartet in A major featured in the final recital – also played by the Escher Quartet, this time with Jennifer Stumm.

1916 aired some shorter pieces, most of which are unlikely ever to be heard in a normal chamber music recital. Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp with Celtic harp arpeggios from Sally Pryce was pleasant enough as were the Pastoral for clarinet and piano by the young Arthur Bliss and Two Old English Songs for string quartet by Frank Bridge (who, I feel sure, was composing much more interesting music at the time). It was gratifying to find one woman composer included in the series (just one!), Rebecca Clarke, who surely needs to be better known. The novelty of the morning was Die Eiserne Brigade, a parody of a military march with plenty of high jinks along the way written for a festive evening during his officer training course in the Austrian army by Schoenberg (of all people!). The somewhat slight pieces of the first half were balanced by a spectacular and immensely satisfying account from Christian Ihle Hadland of Rachmaninov’s Études Tableaux, Op 39 written just before the composer’s departure from a Russia rent by turmoil.

I was unable to attend the 1917 Time Capsule Recital, which featured Debussy’s Violin Sonata (the last of his unfinished set), Fauré’s Cello Concerto No 1 and Bartók’s String Quartet No 2. But all is not lost, as the BBC has recorded most of the “Time Capsule” events and will be broadcasting them in the near future (see below) . However, I was present at the well attended grand finale to hear Anthony Marwood play the Suite from The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky. (What a pity that he was not called upon to perform the complete version with which he delighted Festival audiences some years ago!) After the interval he joined Steven Isserlis, Katherine Gowers, Jennifer Stumm and Connie Shih in a moving and powerful performance of Elgar’s String Quintet. You could feel the tears flowing from its opening bars.

A number of other events connected with this strand of the Festival, including a talk on The Technology of War and another entitled What was Shell-Shock? By far the most relevant of these was WWI Piano and Poetry with readings of war poetry and prose by Siegfried Sassoondelivered with fine feeling by Benedict Cumberbatch and descriptions of the war by historian Margot van Bers which struck me as overkill! The music was highly relevant. Stravinsky’s Souvenir d’une marche boche and Granados’ Marche Militaire reflected the troubled time, as did Frank Bridge’s Lament for Solo Piano in memory of a 9 year old girl who died when the Lusitania was torpedoed. Debussy was not actively involved in the War but it clearly affected him deeply, as was evident in the jagged martial motif in the first movement of En blanc et noir and the profound sense of loss in the second – played on two pianos by Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen. Ravel, by contrast, actually took part in the War and his response to the conflict was to escape to the musical world of the early 18th century. The result, Le Tambour de Couperin, performed with passion and eloquence by Mr Owen, brought this event to a magnificent conclusion.

It would have been remiss not to include some of the popular music of the era, and this was provided by John Sweeney is his accompaniment to the silent film documentary from 1917, The Battle of Ancre. Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum warned us that we might find some of the music frivolous and inappropriate, but I found The Entrance of the Gladiators the ideal accompaniment to film footage showing tanks in action. Apart from being a ground breaking documentary, the film also had a clear propaganda motive and ended on a wave of patriotic fervour. The soon to be expanded British Territorial Army surely missed a trick here by not posting a recruiting sergeant at every exit armed with a batch of enlistment forms.

This has been an ambitious and adventurous Cheltenham Festival which has shied away from well tried and tested formulae to uncover neglected works, promote interesting new music and explore unfamiliar musical traditions. The BBC has obviously taken note of these efforts and has either broadcast live or recorded a record number of concerts for future transmission. Many of those mentioned in this report will be broadcast in the Lunchtime Concert slot in the first two weeks of August 2012. Full details, including information on downloading, are available from

Roger Jones