Artistic Director George Vass continues to take the musical road less travelled, and across the Presteigne Festival’s six-days challenges audiences with a remarkable spread of work, this year including nine premieres, each concert listened to with a concentration that would put a London audience to shame.

Now in its thirty-seventh year, this year’s focus was on America and embraced music by native composers and works written in the States by Europeans. As ever, contemporary music played a vital role and featured in two events on Sunday, August 25, both typical of Vass’s enterprise and imaginative programming. The first, at the ancient church of St Mary Magdalene, Bleddfa secured a full house with the Albion Quartet (Tasmin Waley-Cohen & Emma Parker; violins, Ann Beilby, viola and Nathaniel Boyd, cello) in compelling accounts of music by Matthew Taylor, Freya Waley-Cohen and Franz Schubert.

First up was Taylor’s perfectly judged Fifth String Quartet of 2008. To its three connected movements the Albion Quartet responded with playing of rapt intensity, fully involved in its traversal from tumult to tranquillity and keenly realising the work’s emotional power and lyrical impulse. There followed the first performance of Waley-Cohen’s gently musing Winterbourne (a Presteigne festival commission) which unfolded with austere grandeur and technical assurance, captivating in its evocation of a stream that flows only in winter. The Albion Quartet could not have been more persuasive in their account. An affectionate yet somewhat earnest rendition of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ String Quartet followed, characterised by polished restraint that underlined ‘smiling through tears’ in the opening Allegro and the consoling strains of his recycled ballet music Rosamunde in the Andante. Flawless intonation and ensemble were constant presences, and if the carefree stance in the Finale was only periodically audible there was no doubting the Albion’s attention to detail and refinement.

Later at St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne, the Festival Orchestra was joined by Alice Neary and Mathilde Milwidsky for a generous programme of six works, which elsewhere might have been eclipsed by one another had each not been so distinctive. This intriguing cocktail began with Arthur Honegger’s delightful Pastorale d'été, an amuse bouche of Gallic charm. Set in motion by a mellifluous horn solo, its melodic contours were unveiled by silky violins and sparkling woodwind, the whole evocative and ideally paced. So too was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for string orchestra, in a performance where Vass enabled the work’s spaciousness and nobility to work its magic, while also sustaining plenty of momentum.  

The core of the programme was taken up by recent work from two women; Essex-born Cheryl Frances-Hoad and New-Yorker Hannah Lash.  Inspired by the cello suites of Bach and Britten, Frances-Hoad’s Katharsis is a concertante work for cello and orchestra teeming with musical invention. Alice Neary was a fervent soloist, fully equal to the work’s expressive demands, by turns combative, elegiac and playful, the Festival Orchestra sensitive partners throughout the work’s clearly defined movements based on 18th century dance structures. The UK premiere of Chaconnes by Hannah Lash was no less conspicuous for its startling originality and whilst also derived from traditional concepts its repeated rhythmic patterns within shifting string textures blazed with vitality.  

Also making a distinct impact was David Matthews’s White Nights, a compact concerto for violin and chamber ensemble that consistently gripped the ear as much for Mathilde Milwidsky’s yearning solo violin as for the striking sonorities of its instrumental commentary and all superbly played. By contrast, Stravinsky’s Concerto in E flat ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ was a somewhat cautious affair, but what it lacked in bite and swagger found compensation in an abundance of colourful detail.

By David Truslove