This festival always, always passes me by – I’m on mailing lists for university events and things like that, but the Cambridge Summer Music Festival takes place outside term time and so students are thin on the ground. What with one thing and another, however, I have somehow gone to seven concerts in the past couple of weeks or so, and with mainly positive findings to report.
Things began auspiciously on 23rd July with the Aurora Orchestra and Nick Collon. He’s an inspirational figure, kind of a British Dudamel with slightly tamer hair. I had low expectations of the Corn Exchange as a venue, which I remembered as having all the acoustic definition of an airport departure lounge, but my memory of the place happily turned out to be defective. It was an excellent concert, the highlight for me being Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes, if not his greatest orchestral score then at least frequently reminiscent of his most vibrant music. For some pieces the Aurora were joined by the Cordão de Ouro capoiera group, who were impressive but might have had more bite if they hadn’t had to be so careful about not hitting the musicians with their flailing limbs. With luck and forward planning they will have more room for manoeuvre at the Proms later this month. I was very fortunate to be buttonholed during the interval by the most interesting man in Cambridge, who told me of the fascinating history of the Corn Exchange, his many enthralling encounters with foreign tourists (with whom he was able to converse in their own languages), and his occasional disagreements with officials of the Colleges. There were many things I would have liked to discuss at length with him, but unfortunately there was no gap in his conversation long enough to enable me to speak. The only thing he neglected to tell me, I think possibly in the world, was his name, and so I am unable to give him the full credit he deserves here.
The next day I went to see John Scott giving an organ recital in the chapel of King’s College. I can’t really tell one organ from another, but the Harrison organ at King’s is a marvellous instrument, and seemed to me ideal for the Whitlock Fantasie-Choral no. 1 Scott began with. The attention of the boy sitting in the stall next to me, who was Dutch and about fifteen years old, appeared to wander at times, though he clapped enthusiastically in the appropriate places. Early during the first of Alain’s Trois Danses, ‘Joies’, it became apparent he was applying a pressing motion to his trousers, and he proceeded to rearrange certain objects therein. Quite understandable, really – we’ve all been there, unless we’re a woman. During the second, ‘Deuils’, he set out on an investigatory mission which entailed direct manual contact. By the time we reached ‘Luttes’, I am glad to say, he had finished whatever it had been necessary for him to do. If Scott had been aware of what was going on down below, as it were, he might not have finished with such a barnstorming performance of Guy Bovet’s Hamburger Totentanz.
On 27th July I trekked to the Fitzwilliam Museum to see a piano recital by the prodigious Mishka Rushdie Momen. Attendees were greeted by a dapper man whispering conspiratorially, “Are you a friend?” It felt like being in a pre-Wolfenden gay bar. What it transpired he was hinting at was that one might sit in a good seat only if one was an official Friend of the Festival. Momen is a fine pianist already, making no allowances for her age. She made the most of that tremendous crunch chord at the end of the C# minor fugue from Book 1 of the 48, and her Chopin third sonata was a joy. She took the scherzo at a fantastic lick, and got away with it. One eccentricity of the venue, which ought to have been taken into consideration beforehand, was the presence in the room of a chiming grandfather clock, which meant that the first movement of the Mozart A minor sonata was interrupted by eight bongs, and a virtuosic passage in the Chopin by nine. To her credit the pianist continued unruffled through the chiming, though presumably it was something she had already had to contend with during rehearsals.
One can’t expect scandal or titillation as a rule at classical music concerts, and so it was not enormously surprising that the following concerts were less remarkable for their non-musical aspects than for the quality of music-making, which is probably as it should be. A Fauré at Twilight concert at Emmanuel URC on 28th July was a great delight, interspersing the master’s later Nocturnes, played with impeccable transparency by my one-time supervisor Jeremy Thurlow, with readings of late Romantic English poetry by local writer and UEA professor Rebecca Stott and Dante translator extraordinaire Robin Kirkpatrick. His rendition of ‘Dover Beach’ was a high point. In the interests of intimacy, some members of the audience were invited to sit on stage behind the piano, facing forward. This afforded those sitting in the normal seats the opportunity of watching them fall asleep. A tip to anyone feeling drowsy at a concert: it is possible to close your eyes, maintain your composure and give the impression you are being transported to realms of ecstasy by the music as long as you keep your mouth shut. Otherwise the illusion is destroyed.
The next night it was the Parisian Trio de Lutèce at Great St Mary’s, playing Brahms, Chopin and Ravel. Until recently I suspect I’d have been most excited at the prospect of the Ravel, but at the moment it’s Brahms Brahms all the time with me. Lawrence Power’s recording of the viola sonatas has played no small part in helping me make it through my dissertation (which is still not finished, so I have no excuse to be writing this). Without wishing to be tactless, the audience at this concert was if not entirely ancient and desiccated then at least on the way there, with the exception of a few agreeably excited children in the balcony. That may illustrate one of the differences between town and gown. The student concerts I go to usually attract student audiences. If anything, I hike the average age up. At this concert I probably pulled it down a few years.
Cordelia Williams’ piano recital at Peterhouse on 3rd August had an air of mystery about it. The Festival programme promised the third Chopin sonata (again), while the website talked excitedly of Medtner. Chopin won out, sadly, though the performance put paid to any disappointment at repertoire replication. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Williams was the — writing Williams instead of Cordelia feels wrong, in fact, both because it seems unforgivable to forgo the opportunity of writing Cordelia absolutely as often as possible, and because her spoken introductions to the pieces, if they had the same effect on other audience members as they did on me at any rate, made it feel as though we were all on first-name terms. Well then. Before reading Theology at Clare College, Cordelia was the piano finalist in BBC Young Musician of the Year four years ago, where, I recall, she played the Saint-Saëns second concerto, as this year’s winner did. (I suppose it’s a good piece for a young pianist to play, but I do wish the fifth was performed a bit more often). Her Chopin third sonata was excellent, but I think the outstanding performance of the night was of the Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. She is evidently a pianist alive to the nuances of Ravel’s music, and the experience was almost like hearing the piece for the first time. I was impressed throughout the concert by her sparing use of pedal, which the theatre’s rather dry acoustic drew attention to. I always use too much pedal in an attempt to mask the shortcomings of my technique and ability.
Last night the festival ended with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in King’s College Chapel, playing superbly and without a conductor, as is their habit nowadays, though led by Kenneth Sillito. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, producing a stunning homogeneity of sound and warmth that filled the chapel, really the ideal venue for a piece like this, and for the Elgar and Tchaikovsky Serenades they played in the second half. The Elgar may be a work of his comparative youth, but I struggle to think of anything he wrote that is more achingly beautiful than its slow movement. Perhaps some parts of the violin and cello concerti. The Academy were joined by guitarist Morgan Szymanski towards the interval for Vivaldi’s RV93 concerto, more familiar in its original incarnation for lute. I’ve seen Szymanski play once before, at the Wigmore Hall perhaps as long as five years ago, on which occasion I was excited by what I believed at the time to be a genuine Sue MacGregor sighting. He’s evidently a fine and intelligent musician, though the Vivaldi was impeded slightly by the King’s acoustic. I thought earlier in the day as I was listening to Poulenc’s Concert Champêtre how fine the line must be that one has to tread when writing a concertante work for an instrument like a harpsichord or a guitar, and in the event the sound of the guitar did disappear occasionally. Happily Szymanski played Agustín Barrios’ Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios as an encore, which came across clearly and beautifully.
A word about the selection of encores at the festival: the Aurora Orchestra gave two standard encores in fun arrangements. The schmaltzy reharmonisation of Brahms’ fifth Hungarian Dance, which I presume was by their Arranger-in-Residence, Iain Farrington, was irresistible. The list of arrangements on his website whets the appetite considerably, and who else can possibly boast an artist photo taken by John Mark Ainsley? Très cool. The Trio de Lutèce did a couple of Rachmaninov prelude transcriptions – op. 23 no. 4, which worked beautifully, and no. 5, which didn’t. It’s just too pianistic for a chamber group. I wasn’t crazy about the piano encores – Miskha Rushdie Momen played Liszt’s hackneyed Gnomenreigen, albeit scintillatingly, and Cordelia Williams reprised a Chopin mazurka from earlier in her programme. Why do that, I wonder, especially when there are about fifty other ones to choose from? I’d have loved to hear op. 63 no. 1. Or one of the Szymanowski mazurkas! They’re an ideal complement to the Chopin, and just the thing to play when you’ve got the audience eating out of your hand. The best encores I have heard in piano recitals to date, I think, have been those given by Marc-André Hamelin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where after a heavy programme of Beethoven and Schubert he played a Tchaikovsky transcription of his own for left hand alone (which I confess I enjoyed more than the rest of the recital), and Evgeny Kissin at the Proms, who played the March from The Love for Three Oranges. It was the most thrilling end to a concert I can imagine. Why don’t more people play it?