By Peter Reynolds

Presteigne Festival: Flights of Angels / Gillian Keith and Timothy End

Angels were in the air on bank holiday Monday afternoon at St Andrew’s Church at the Presteigne Festival. At least, they were strongly evoked in composer Cecilia McDowall’s new song cycle, commissioned by Nicholas Jardine for the festival and premiered by the Canadian soprano Gillian Keith with attentive and sensitive accompaniment from pianist Timothy End. Flights of Angels (the title is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet) sets four poems exploring different aspects of angels. McDowall’s music has been heard regularly at the festival and this new work shows what a wide range of emotional worlds her music now encompasses.

In the opening song, McDowall’s music is cold and charged with tension as carved angels anticipate their destruction by Cromwell’s soldiers. By comparison, the music is delicate, mysterious and obsessive in a song where angelic figures seem to cross the radars of World War Two pilots. And, to end, a song in which angels play a celestial game of football against the Devils, full of high spirits and subtle allusion to the world of music theatre.

Soprano Gillian Keith has developed a wide-ranging portfolio of performances in recent years and this recital demonstrated the sheer range of her abilities: early romantic Sibelius songs in Finnish, Judith Weir’s witty settings of 16th century Spanish poems and songs by the American Samuel Barber. She ended her recital with Poulenc’s 1939 songs Fiançailles pour rire, dwelling on the hazards of love. Its bitter-sweet romanticism, composed in a world on the edge of catastrophe, made a powerful end of a most intelligent recital.