ARRIVING at Southwell Minster, you might be approaching a French château. Southwell and the cathedral at its heart are such a glorious setting for a music festival that it is amazing that this August’s was only the fourth annual one.
Thanks to an initiative by Marcus Farnsworth, a former head chorister, now an award-winning international baritone soloist and — as this event proved — a conductor of agility and insight, Southwell took the plunge; and this year’s turned out to be a mighty treat.
Everything was planned to the finest detail, with wisdom and good taste. As striking as anything was the repertoire selected: bold and imaginative, performed by top-class soloists, several of whom have supported the festival since its outset, and both witty and serious. Coinciding with the popular Edington Festival in Wiltshire, this programme was rewarded with a packed nave for all the main concerts. It was five days of pure heaven.
The music of the French composer Francis Poulenc, in character for a mischievous prankster, kept popping up: his astonishing dramatic work Figure humaine, for instance, including a daring appeal (by the poet Pierre Éluard) for the liberation of Occupied France, capped the finely honed morning concert by the burgeoning Southwell Festival Voices, amassed and conducted by Farnsworth. Rarely performed works by Byrd — Vigilate, a powerfully poetic homily taken from St Mark — and one of Tallis’s most glorious works, his Miserere, were offset by the in-vogue Baltic composers Veljo Tormis and Arvo Pärt.
The night before, the Voices had introduced the best-known penitential choral work by Dietrich Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri (The Limbs of our Lord), a seven-section sequence that calls for unusual delicacy and sensitivity — unlike Buxtehude’s more full-blooded cantatas, which are inexplicably never performed in England.
The scholarly programme notes were on a par with, if not excelling, the Three Choirs’. There was more Pärt, and the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, and, with the riveting soloist Alison Rose, Britten’s dazzling early Les Illuminations, whose impact stems from the magical youthful poetry of Rimbaud. Performing these were the Festival Sinfonia Strings, again under Farnsworth. New groups and ensembles galore seem to keep springing up from this Festival.
There was more regular fare, too, of course: Gabrieli, Palestrina, and Mozart. But who could not applaud stumbling across, at a Saturday “family” concert, Poulenc’s L’histoire de Babar le petit éléphant. This exquisitely charming extravaganza was here narrated by Victoria Newlyn, who also took the vocal part in Figure humaine. The work, France’s answer to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, was deftly promoted from piano accompaniment to chamber ensemble by David Matthews, a wide-ranging composer whom Southwell could well feature in future.
I applauded, too, the inclusion of a Scriabin Étude, and the Suite for cello by the Spanish-Catalan virtuoso Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966), in the recital by the deeply expressive 18-year-old cellist and 2016 BBC Young Musician winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He is the first London Music Masters Junior Ambassador, which reflects his passion for making classical music accessible to all, especially the young, who will also form a large part of next year’s festival.
The biggest concert, in numbers, featured Mozart’s “Great” Mass in C minor: the most substantial of almost 20 by the young prodigy, and the last before his unfinished Requiem of 1791. Farnsworth was on the podium again. Given that this work requires a massive choral presence, he and his forces delivered it in a most effective and memorable way. The solo role sung so memorably on Deutsche Grammophon by the great Maria Stader was taken here by Sophie Bevan. She and Farnsworth’s solo team brought this substantial work vividly to life.
At its best, the C-minor Mass contains famous bonbons, and one could not describe Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 21 (poached for the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan), played here by the stylish James Baillieu, who also headed some inspiring masterclasses for the Festival, as anything else. Yet there was still more rare Poulenc: Le Bal masqué, his Cantate profane (Poulenc loved to balance the sacred and profane in his own personality), to gloriously witty and provocative texts by Max Jacob. The texts are pure joy: a sort of jocular riposte to Walton’s earlier Façade.
There were two plums: an absolutely thrilling “Come and Sing” performance of a minimally rehearsed Vesperae Solennes de Confessore (1780), the second of Mozart’s two consecutive Vespers settings, in which the contrasts in mood and texture Farnsworth evoked were scintillating.
Finally, apart from the last of the extended weekend’s services, the Sunday festival evensong, conducted by Paul Provost, which featured an almost Purcellian chant by Tomkins, came an organ recital by Matthew Martin. He is a rightly celebrated and still youthful composer (just signed by Novello) and Director of Music at Keble College, Oxford. Alongside more obvious Vierne and Widor, he brought us the Te Deum by Paris’s most celebrated teacher after Nadia Boulanger and Marie-Claire Alain, Jeanne Demessieux.
To this Martin, with his fine sense of unusual programming, added An Occasional Trumpet Voluntary by Patrick Gowers, a gifted and wide-ranging composer of the Birtwistle generation, and — most successful, I felt, of the items in this recital — the Suite de deuxième ton by the Baroque composer Jean-Adam Guilain (possibly as early as 1680 to after 1739, hence a contemporary of J. S. Bach), “of whom we know practically nothing”, except that he was born in Germany and moved to Paris. Martin found some wonderful touches, such as transferring the reed into the left-hand Basse de Trompette, and a clutch of beautifully contrasted echo effects.