During its three-decade history the Festival held every year in this historic town straddling the Welsh borderland has produced many memorable premieres of new works commissioned from a wide range of composers -- and not only British ones.
Included in this glittering gallery is Peter Sculthorpe, highly respected beyond his Australian homeland, a welcome visitor here several years ago, and this time round contributing ‘Island Songs’ for saxophone, string orchestra and percussion, two movements breathing the timelessness of the North Australian landscape, and whose first performance was the highlight of Thursday’s opening concert.
Sculthorpe’s compatriot Amy Dickson was soloist, weaving her way eloquently through the three indigenous songs which form the basis for this achingly lyrical work, bravely scaling down her volume sometimes to an arresting whisper, drawing tones from her soprano saxophone as vocal as a clarinet or as penetrating as an oboe, before eventually turning to the mellowness of her alto sax.
Under George Vass the strings of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra rose to the exposed challenges of Sculthorpe’s fertile textures, and percussionist Jonny Grogan contributed sensitively to this shimmering backcloth of sound.
The programme began and ended with examples from one of this year’s festival themes, an exploration of English string orchestra pieces: William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso no.2, born from a pedigree of good provenance, losing out in comparison with Britten’s super-accomplished ‘Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, bold, astringent, adroit, suave and fizzing, with remarkable depth of tone and secure intonation from Vass’ resourceful orchestra.
This year’s composer-in-residence was Sally Beamish, her generous presence here beginning with ‘Under the Wing of the Rock’ for viola (the sensitively communicative Sarah-Jane Bradley) and strings, quietly impassioned, and a kind of Celtic ‘Lark Ascending’.
This subliminal Gloucestershire connection continued with Beamish’s ‘Five Poems from the Forest’ in Friday’s concert from the excellent Carducci Quartet, Bradley the extra violist, narrated settings of poems by David Pownall about the Forest of Dean.
Despite the lovely shifting sound-tapestry, this structure is halting and faltering, inhibiting the flow of the poetry’s delivery. Crawford Logan was the characterful reciter, his overmiking unbalancing the sound-picture, and drawing too much attention to these verses (one of which, describing a visit to the local tip which could be happening anywhere, seemed inappropriate) which could possibly be offensive to genuine foresters refusing to be patronised by incoming grockles.
John McCabe’s String Quartet no.7, a Presteigne Festival commission premiered here, could have been better placed other than at the beginning of this concert. Well-judged and closely-argued, it deserved ears more warmed-up as it moves from a first movement of tight Bartokian intervals, through two ‘scherzi’ one perky, one ruthlessly energetic, towards an ‘adagio’ where a visionarily unfolding line is interrupted by grumbling interjections, only eventually sublimated.
The finale brings relaxation, a sturdy dance of triumph, and sunset tranquility.
Saturday’s “30th Anniversary Gala Concert” brought two world premieres, beginning with Sally Beamish’s reworking for counter-tenor, oboe, string orchestra and percussion of her ‘Divan, on themes of Hafez’, translations of typically enigmatic texts by a medieval Persian poet.
The oboe writing, searching across the registers, was delivered by Nicholas Daniel with crisp articulation and well-phrased fluency. Vass’s PFO concentrated throughout these 28 minutes with praiseworthy commitment, rewarded by some occasionally vivifying writing.
But these were a long 28 minutes as we laboured through what was really a handful of settings, William Purefoy’s creamy counter-tenor set in registers which impaired clarity of diction, and forced to gabble in the only setting which leapt into life amid all the well-worn orientalisms of the piece.
And well-worn was the vocabulary of string-orchestra devices we heard in ‘Variations on a Theme of Reger’ by the experienced conductor Matthew Taylor.
This began ear-cleansingly, Reger’s little Sonatina theme brightly scored by Taylor, but the music, cerebrally finding out all 12 key-centres imposed upon a four-movement symphonic template, gradually sank into paralysed inertia until a cheery finale, almost tacked-on, woke everything up.