THIS year's daring and innovative Presteigne Festival mounted a lavish feast of recent Polish music, and the festival's concerts and talks were packed to the rafters with enthusiastic, appreciative audiences.
Most music lovers might struggle to come up with the names of any Polish composers other than Chopin and perhaps Szymanowski. But in the last 60 years or so a new wave of vital dynamic Polish composers have emerged, the drama and energy of their music initially springing up in opposition to the oppressive Communist regime. Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, are now recognised as giants of the last half century and featured in the festival.
In particular, it was Panufnik’s music that took centre stage. An émigré who fled from Poland in 1954, settling in the UK, Panufnik’s music reflects the elegant dignity of the man himself, vividly bought to life in festival talks by his wife and daughter, the composer Roxanne Panufnik. The music’s cool detachment and controlled passionate intensity made for many memorable performances, particularly in the cool pure colours of his Sinfonia Concertante for flute and harp (with superb soloists Juliette Bausor and Sally Pryce) and the meltingly beautiful Landscape. Also on the programme was the gritty energy of the Concerto for Strings by Grazyna Bacewicz, written in the war-torn Poland of 1948. Throughout the festival, the young vibrant Festival Orchestra bounced from one challenging concert to another under George Vass’s tireless and controlled direction.
The festival brought to Presteigne some of Poland’s younger composers, in particular Pawvel Lukaszewski, whose luminous choral music has been seized on by choirs the world over in the last few years. Minimal, firmly rooted in tradition, but with a powerful emotional punch, it’s easy to see why Lukaszewski has scored such a hit. Audiences warmed instantly to his Piano Trio (a breathtaking performance by the Leonore Trio on Saturday night), but the big focal point of the festival was undoubtedly the premiere of his 55-minute Requiem on Sunday night, given by the Joyful Company of Singers, soprano Rachel Nicholls, baritone Christopher Foster and Festival Orchestra under George Vass.
Some audience members struggled with music so different to the dramatic and romantic requiems of the past; instead what we heard was cool and ritualistic. As a practising Catholic, the words of the requiem mass are of central importance to Lukaszewski and its impressive slow ten movements felt as if they had been hewn out of granite, but often tempered with a lush sweetness. Undoubtedly, it was a feather in the cap for Presteigne to secure the premiere of a work that, I suspect, will receive many more performances.
By Peter Reynolds