Presteigne Festival review: Bagatelles after Beethoven

August 25th, 2017; St Andrew's Church, Presteigne

Tim Horton piano

By Emma Lilley

'The thing about the Presteigne Festival,' one audience member was overheard saying, 'is that as it builds momentum you start to see and hear the links between things.' One such link on Friday afternoon was the thrill of hearing complex things delivered in small and seemingly unassuming packages. Pianist Tim Horton gave a compellingly fluent recital that started with Alban Berg's punchy, single-movement Piano Sonata and progressed via composer-in-residence Edward Gregson's 'Six Little Piano Pieces'. Tightly written and formally compressed, they place virtuoso demands on the pianist. As Gregson says in his programme note, there is nothing little about these pieces. Throughout, one had the sense that Horton was inside the music, and utterly committed. His commitment was just as apparent in the Bagatelles after Beethoven (a bagatelle being literally a 'trifle'), a Presteigne Festival world premiere commissioned as part of the Festival's 35th anniversary celebrations. 'I've never given six world premieres in one concert', said Horton, before sitting down to give us a mini-cycle of six miniatures each by a different composer and based on Beethoven's late set, Op. 126, written in the winter of 1823-4 after he had drafted the finale of his Ninth Symphony. They worked; they hung together as a group but each also found different paths in to the Beethoven as source material: Martin Butler's 'Late' was a haiku-like attempt to distil the German composer's late sound world; Gabriel Jackson's took the tempo marking of Beethoven's third Op. 126 Bagatelle, 'Andante cantabile e grazioso', to give us something enchantingly warm that opened out into radiant harmonies while Michael Zev Gordon homed in on the composer's fourth Bagatelle as a formal model, taking it 'section by section, phrase by phrase, proportion by proportion'; this formal mirroring created a piece of spine-tingling urgency, as if he were attempting to propel the listener somewhere utterly new. Horton then rounded off the concert with the original point of departure for the commission, Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, in a perfectly judged performance that left us all wanting more. Which is how it should be.