By Peter Reynolds

French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time whilst imprisoned by the Nazis in 1940 and its drama and expressive power closed Monday night’s concert at Presteigne’s St Andrew’s Church. Violinist Alexandra Wood, clarinettist Rozenn Le Trionnaire and cellist Alice Neary, combined with pianist and composer Huw Watkins, concentrated not so much on its drama as its tenderness, giving one of the most lyrical performances I can remember, emphasising the music’s sheer sensual beauty.

Huw Watkins is forty this year and is one of the festival’s featured composers. Earlier in the evening we heard Dream: a hypnotic but unsettling trio, in which one was never quite sure where things were leading. Also featured this year is composer Adrian Williams who founded the festival in 1983 and is celebrating his sixtieth birthday. His Cadenzas, Scherzos and Cantilenas, a festival commission receiving its premiere, demonstrated Williams’s skill and imagination, exploiting both the virtuosity of its three players and their expressive skills.

Earlier in the day, oboist Emily Pailthorpe and pianist Clare Hammond gave an afternoon recital at the same venue and, anticipating the evening’s concert, performed two classic French oboe sonatas by Poulenc and Dutilleux. Both players are indicative of the high level of musicians Artistic Director George Vass is currently attracting to the festival. These two performers were a testament to the festival’s commitment to quality.

On the bill were two pieces by Robert Saxton, who is featured at this year’s festival: the edgy, nervous but wonderfully delicate Arias for oboe and piano and the movingly turbulent Chacony for the pianist’s left hand only. A new commission and one of the highlights of the festival was Raven’s Cage by 27-year-old Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade. Based on London Zoo’s Victorian raven cage, the composer imagined the awkward mutual gaze of the birds and their Victorian visitors. This little piece maintained an eerie unbroken suspense throughout, with the oboist’s obsessive broken phrases quietly, but menacingly, stalked by the piano.