If this tribute concert to the late John McCabe looked like it might have been programmed by McCabe himself, that’s because – as George Vass explained to a capacity audience on the last night of the 2015 Presteigne Festival - it was. As well as having an encyclopedic musical knowledge, McCabe consistently advocated new music over and above his own works.
So after the quiet horn calls of McCabe’s Red Leaves had faded away, we heard Vass conduct the Presteigne Festival Orchestra in two McCabe favourites: Nielsen’s youthful Little Suite, and a laid-back performance of Haydn’s Symphony No.43. There wasn’t a trace of period practice in this sunny account – and it counts for a lot to see musicians so obviously enjoying themselves.
First, though, came the premiere of Pastorals by Matthew Taylor; a substantial reworking for violin and string orchestra of a piece first composed in 2003. This new garb suited Taylor’s lyrical inspiration well; the poise with which soloist Fenella Humphreys tackled its exposed, unaccompanied opening solo suggested a Lark Ascending remade for a crueller age.
After the interval came a second, rather more substantial premiere. Tom Poster was a passionately committed soloist in David Knott’s Laments and Lullabies: a three-movement piano concerto built around a ferocious scherzo. Its taut, cyclical construction and modernist effects – shimmering string clusters, and the hollow boom of fingers swept across the piano’s bass strings – couldn’t conceal that this was a work with a pounding Romantic heart.
The haunting final movement – a passacaglia-like meditation on The Flowers of the Forrest - could become a genuine hit, if other orchestras and audiences were imaginative enough to give it the hearing it deserves. Don’t hold your breath, though.