War, Marathons and Jubilation at the 2012 Cheltenham Music Festival

A Most Interesting Festival set for Cheltenham this summer

A Preview by Roger Jones

Starting on July 4th and ending on 15th this promises to be the most interesting Cheltenham Festival of recent years commemorating, as it does, the 150th anniversaries of both Debussy and Delius…. and much, much more.

The final five years of Debussy’s life coincided with the First World War, and one of the themes of this year’s Festival will be music composed between 1914 and 1918 when, like the countries of Europe, the musical world was in ferment. Violinist Katherine Gowers has put together an intriguing programme of five recitals each devoted to a particular year and featuring works not only by Debussy, but Webern, Ravel, Szymanowski, Reger, Bax, Bridge and Bliss among others. The final recital will bring together the talents of Nigel Kennedy and Steven Isserlis for the first time in several years in Bruch’s String Quintet in A minor. To provide a context news bulletins will be read during each event relating to the year in question.

Steven Isserlis will be prominent elsewhere in the Festival, notably in the Elgar Cello Concerto, an elegy to those who had lost their lives in the war. Also on the war theme there will be an evening of poetry readings and music relating to the Great War followed by The Battle of the Ancre, a major documentary of the War with piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.  WWI is likely to feature again in Ian Burnside’s play A Soldier and a Maker based on the songs, poems and letters of Gloucestershire poet and composer Ivor Gurney.

But Festival time is not just an opportunity to dwell on the past. This is the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and a strong local contribution is planned in the Royal Musical Treasures concert featuring “royal” music by Handel, Walton, Byrd, Parry and others.

In this the centenary of Captain Scott’s fareful expedition to the South Pole exploration is another Festival theme. Audiences will be whisked away to Algeria and India with Holst’s Beni Mora Suite and his opera Savitri  (with Sarah Connolly singing the title role), to Africa with David Fanshawe’s  African Sanctus, to Indonesia with Debussy’s Pagodes and to Japan and China in a song recital entitled Songs of the Exotic.  If South America is more to your taste, you might decide to sample Bolivian Baroque in which Florilegium partners the Arakaender Bolivia Choir.

Latin America will also feature in the Fugata Quintet’s recreation of Astor Piazzolla’s own tango quintet with klezmer, Balkan and gypsy music on the same programme provided by She’Koyokh. If you crave for something even more exotic, there will be a chance to see the controversial 1923 silent film of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé starring Alla Nazimova with Charlie Barber’s dramatic score for four percussionists which has a distinctly Middle Eastern sound (reviewed on this website on 20th October last).

We shall also experience the delights of Baghdad in happier times with Delius’ incidental music to Hassan played by Southbank Sinfonia. The play Hassan was written by the Cheltenham born poet James Elroy Flecker who died in 1915 (of TB, not war wounds) and so did not live to see its very successful production in 1923. Delius will also be represented by such works as Paris: The Song of a Great City and the intriguingly titled In the Garden of the Seraglio – and in a Ken Russell documentary film.

Cheltenham has always prided itself on premiering new works and this year is no exception. The Nash Ensemble will give the first performance of Alexander Goehr’s new Horn Trio on July 5th.  Later that day the BBC Singers will be in action giving no fewer than four world premieres – of works by Hugh Wood, Lauri Supponen, Judith Bingham and John Tavener – plus the UK premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Mass. Liz Lane’s Spirit of Africa receives its first performance the following Thursday alongside Fanshawe’s African Sanctus; and Hannah Kendall’s Shard (inspired by London’s latest landmark) receives its first outing in the final concert.

A strong contingent of performers has been lined up for this Festival, some of whom I have already mentioned. Melvyn Tan will be teaming up with his fellow musicians from Singapore, the Orchestra of the Music Makers; I Fagiolini will perform Striggio’s 40 part mass Ecco si beato giorno; Ex Cathedra will sing Rachmaninov’s Vespers by candlelight; The Opera Group will present Edward Rushton’s new opera Babur in London; Ruth Wall will play her three harps; and there will be contributions from Milos Karadaglic and the Carducci Quartet, James Gilchrist with video artist Netia Jones, the Castalian Quartet, Benjamin Grosvenor, Henning Kraggerud playing Ysaye’s sonatas for solo violin, Percussions Claviers de Lyon, The Prince Consort, the Anglo-Indian ensemble Svara Kanti… and many others.

Did I say something about marathons? There’s no escaping the fact that the Olympic Games are being staged this year in Britain and this has clearly influenced the thinking of the Festival’s organisers. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet will be playing a marathon recital with two intervals entitled The Essential Debussy. A series of lectures entitled Musical Athletes will look at the physical demands music making puts on its practitioners – demands that we more readily associate with sportsmen and sportswomen. And the final concert will be another three part affair by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins devoted to music  inspired by London from Elgar’s Cockaigne to Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony – a fanfare, so to speak, for the London Games.

Booking starts early in March. Further details are available from www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music.

 Roger Jones