By Peter Reynolds

Presteigne Festival Bach to the Future

Fenella Humphreys (Violin)

Two years ago violinist Fenella Humphreys decided to commission six composers to write pieces for her, taking J.S. Bach’s timeless music for solo violin as their inspiration. It’s an expensive, risky and ambitious project, but, two years later, this year’s Presteigne Festival featured two concerts in which she played all six new works, crowned by the music of Bach himself.

The first recital, on Saturday morning, in the simple dignified surroundings of St Mary’s Church, Kinnerton, was given to a packed audience with four of the featured composers present. Fenella Humphreys’s choice of composers could not be more varied, ranging from 27-year-old Michael Small, through to Gordon Crosse, one of the young firebrands of the 1960s, and now 77 years old.

Michael Small’s White Space, a festival commission receiving its premiere, was a trance-like evocation of the paintings of the 17th century Dutch master Pieter Saenredam. Playing from a continuous scroll of sheets of music stretched across the stage, Humphreys gradually unfolded an unending stream of restless notes, changing yet unchanged, from which jagged notes emerged, bringing to mind the stark angular lines of Saenrendam’s painting of the interior of Dutch churches.

Gordon Crosse’s Orkney Dreaming, by comparison, conjured the warmth and fertility of the Western isle in vibrant music, culminating in the relaxed folk-like finale and delicious teasing close. Cheryl Francis-Hoad, who persuaded Fenella Humphreys to embark on this project, is one of Britain’s most sought-after young composers. She boldly approached Bach on his own ground with a five-movement suite, full of striking and compelling invention.

Like both Crosse and Hoad, Northern-Ireland born Piers Hellawell’s Balcony Scenes consisted of several short pieces, packed with knotty fantasy. But the culmination of the morning was, of course, the music of J.S.Bach whose first Partita was given a wonderfully lithe and unfussy performance in which Fenella Humphreys never forgot the spirit of dance that informs the root of the music.