By John Rushby-Smith


Between Team GB’s triumph in the London Olympics and GB Paralympics’ anticipated success in the Paralympic Games has come another gold medal event.

Through an ambitious commissioning policy, this year’s Presteigne Festival was dedicated primarily to celebrating the best of British achievement, and this time it’s musical. This year was the Festival’s 30th, and it was also the 23rd to be directed by the remarkable George Vass.

There were no fewer than nine newly commissioned works, the first of which, given in the opening concert, was something of a coup. It was written by the doyen of Australian composers, Peter Sculthorpe. His Island Songs is a hauntingly touching lament for a changing world, in which a solo saxophone, beautifully played by fellow Australian Amy Dickson, plays aboriginal melodies to an evocative accompaniment of “natural” sounds that ranged from birdsong to breaking waves from the strings and percussion.

The excellent string orchestra had already shown their mettle in William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso , and were then joined by viola soloist Sarah-Jane Bradley for an effective account of Under the Wing of the Rock , the first of several intriguing works by this year’s composer-in-residence, Sally Beamish. Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge completed the fare in this event, which was a telling harbinger of delights to come. These included a marvellous recital in which Beamish, Bridge and Rachmaninov were stunningly served by the superbly talented young cellist Philip Higham and the ever-brilliant pianist Tom Poster. Then came the first event to feature the outstanding Carducci Quartet. It began with the second commissioned work, John McCabe’s masterful String Quartet No 7 “Summer Eves”, before actor Crawford Logan recited with great clarity over a background of strings the text of Sally Beamish’s Five Poems of the Forest . A bravura performance of Beethoven’s first Razumovsky quartet concluded the evening. In an impressive recital given by Amy Dickson, Chris Brammeld, winner of the festival’s third Competition for Composers, took centre-stage with his Three Inventions for solo saxophone. With pianist Catherine Milledge alongside her, Ms Dickson’s recital also included an appealing piece “Mein Blaues Klavier” (“My Blue Piano”) by Cecilia McDowell, plus effective works by Huw Watkins and Ross Edwards. It ended with a virtuoso rendition of Graham Fitkin’s dazzling “Gate”.

The next commissioned work on the agenda was David Matthews’s String Quartet No 3 . Arguably the high-spot of the Festival, it was stunningly played by the Carduccis, who were then joined by Philip Higham for a sublime performance of Schubert’s great Quintet in C .

Oft-neglected composer Paul Hindemith’s Five Pieces for string orchestra opened the billing in a gala concert that included another commission, Matthew Taylor’s brilliant Variations on a Theme of Reger . Both these works showed the orchestra in fine light. They sandwiched Sally Beamish’s Divan , on themes of Hafez, settings of Persian poems in which oboist Nicholas Daniel and counter-tenor William Purefoy twirled phrases around one another in ways that were evocative if not always clearly defined. Sally Beamish came properly into her own with a clever deconstruction of Beethoven’s Op 18, No 4: her skilfully-written second string quartet “Opus California”. In the Carducci’s final concert it was followed by Webern’s voluptuous, post-Wagnerian exercise Langsamer Satz (“Slow Movement”) and then Nicholas Daniel joined the ensemble for a work that rivalled the Sculthorpe for poignancy, Michael Berkeley’s achingly beautiful Oboe Quintet . This was surely another festival high-spot.

I couldn’t attend everything, alas, so I missed other potential treasures such as Cecilia McDowell’s commission Rousseau’s Execution , more music by Frank Bridge, David Matthews and Michael Berkeley, recitals by pianist Tom Poster and soprano Gillian Keith, and several works by yet more featured composers. We jump therefore to the Festival Finale. In this George Vass displayed the wonderful Festival Orchestra at its very best. The taxing programme began with a sonorous performance of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and concluded with a rendition of Tippett’s demanding Concerto for double string orchestra that was nothing short of brilliant. In between were two works: Sally Beamish’s “No, I’m not afraid” in which the composer herself recited the poetry of Russian dissident Ratushinskaya over a background of evocative string sonorities, and Paul Patterson’s Allusions for two violins and strings, a brilliantly witty work that took as its material snippets from Verdi’s Falstaff and Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro . The two violins were the duo Retorica, who had also given a recital of their own earlier in the festival. We left to the peaceful strains of an encore: the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for strings.

And so another Presteigne Festival is over. George, you’ve done it again. Gold medals all round!