Presteigne Festival review

The Nightingales at Bleddfa

27th August, 2017; Church of St Mary Magdalene, Bleddfa

By Emma Lilley

It's a mark of the Presteigne Festival's continuing prestige that it is able to attract artists of the calibre of the Nightingale String Quartet. They're based in Copenhagen and have been fêted since leaving the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where they took first prize in its 2008 string quartet competition. Since then they've amassed numerous awards, including becoming Gramophone magazine's first group recipients of its 'Young Artist of the Year' title in 2014. These young string players don't need the Presteigne Festival to put them on the map; they're already there. But it's a tribute to George Vass's programming and the reputation of the Festival he's built up over the past 25 years that they've included this relatively remote musical date in their schedule.

For their second concert they not only brought a piece of home, Vagn Holmboe's Third String Quartet, but also embraced the work of British composer (and Festival stalwart) David Matthews with his affecting Sixth String Quartet (1991). The piece takes much of its material from an Adagio he wrote in response to the shock news of his friend, art critic Peter Fuller's death in a car accident in 1990. It is music of loss, a letter of grief for a friendship that had been brutally terminated, and the Nightingales captured the mood perfectly, drawing us into the composer's very personal journey as the music segues from contemplative and mournful questing to moments of pain and anger, in which the sudden and violent nature of his friend's death is revealed.

Throughout, the Nightingales' intelligence and emotional responsiveness to the music and to one another shone through. This was at times an anguished cry of a performance and playing of great sensitivity for its subject. And it was moving to see David Matthews embrace the players so warmly at the end, as if for a moment they had brought his friendship with a dear friend back into the light again.

They rounded off the concert with a perfectly judged performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 6, Op. 18, to which they brought a refined delicacy of touch in a palpably 18th-century-style quartet, which scholars believe may have been the first of the six to be written.