By Peter Reynolds

A memorable and carefully planned Presteigne Festival closed on Tuesday, focusing on featured composer Robert Saxton. A leading figure of his generation, Saxton, now in his sixties, as a child received advice from no less  figure than Benjamin Britten. He wrote both words and music for Time and the Seasons, a series of songs evoking the seasonal cycle and memory. It formed a centrepiece to a recital by festival artists-in-residence, baritone Damien Thantrey and pianist Huw Watkins. This was Saxton at his best: flexible, lyrical song-like lines mixing traditional elements and new striking piano textures. It was heard alongside Huw Watkins’s sometimes hard-hitting lunar-inspired Look Down, Fair Moon, mixing poets ranging from Hardy to Larkin.

Thantrey’s recital linked into the festival’s French theme with songs by Duparc, Ravel and Henri Dutilleux, on whom Roger Nichols gave an excellent lecture. Thantrey is a born interpreter of art song, his dark-grained voice always focused, but capable of countless shades of colour, visibly living through a huge range of emotions from the sensuality of Duparc to the uproariously drunken Ravel’s Don Quixote.

The final evening concert featured war and its influence: a festival theme prompted by the Somme’s centenary. Saxton was back for a festival commission and premiere, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, given by the Festival Orchestra conducted by artistic director George Vass. Based on the paintings by Stanley Spencer in Sandham Chapel in Hampshire, Saxton captured Spencer’s sense of mystical fantasy in a piece full of invention and striking writing for strings.

The concert also featured David Matthews’s Piano Concerto (with the versatile Clare Hammond as soloist): light, evanescent, with a tango-inspired second movement and a dark elegy, it concludes with a big tune to send the audience off into the interval. Richard Blackford’s The Better Angels of Our Nature for oboe and string orchestra (with soloist Emily Pailthorpe) was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 plea for reconciliation. Work in film and TV has equipped Blackford to capture emotions and atmospheres with precision, adding to the piece’s emotional depth with its powerfully dramatic first half and conciliatory close.

To end came a classic: Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, ostensibly dedicated “to the victims of fascism and war”. The festival strings under Vass gave a searing performance of this dark, violent piece. But, rather than send audience home in sombre mood, Vass sugared the pill with an encore: the nostalgic Pieds-en-l’air from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.