Presteigne Festival review: A Letter of Rights

27th August, 2017

St Andrew's Church, Presteigne

By Emma Lilley

Sunday evening's concert A Letter of Rights offered an engaging mixed programme of choral and string works, as well as wonderful showcase-moments for soloists Katherine Baker on flute and Suzy Willison-Kawalec's harp. George Vass and his Presteigne Festival Orchestra warmed things up with a beautifully crafted performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus' for strings and harp, essentially an extended meditation on variants of one of the young RVW's favourite folk-tunes. It came with just the right hit of sentimentality, and closed with a dying pianissimo that faded to a moving pin-drop-quiet in St Andrew's sympathetic acoustic. Scottish composer John McLeod's Le Tombeau de Poulenc, written in 1963 in tribute to the French composer, followed in a version for flute, harp and strings – Poulenc's unselfconscious love of a good tune clearly evident in its tongue-in-cheek charm and simple folksong-like lines. Katherine Baker and Suzy Willison-Kawalec played exquisitely, grooving on the vitality of their fellow players, the timbres of their instruments meshing together seductively.

The first half was punctuated by Cecilia McDowall's choral work Some corner of a foreign field, which she'd originally written for Dulwich College (where McDowall is composer in residence) to mark the centenary of the First World War. The work uses a trio of texts that includes biblical texts associated with Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and soldier–poet Rupert Brooke, and takes its name from Brooke's First World War poem, 'The Soldier' ('If I should die think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England'), which incredibly no other composer had ever set before. McDowall says she thinks of the tenor as the embodiment of Brooke, and the knowledge that Brooke did indeed die on active service makes the work especially poignant. Tenor Greg Tassell made a profoundly moving soldier – utterly secure in the piece's taxing high passages – and singing with an infallibly English sound that sent tears rolling.

The concert's headline work, Tarik O'Regan's A Letter of Rights, presents huge challenges for any choir, and, though Sine Nomine International Touring Choir occasionally faltered, they sang with conviction, relishing the pithiness of Alice Goodman's words and drawing out the work's powerful emotional charge. Commissioned by Salisbury Cathedral in 2015 to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, this was a clever bit of programming and, given the document's status as a symbol of liberty, felt like an important work to be hearing at this particular time in history.