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Music review: the Southwell Music Festival

13 September 2019

Roderic Dunnett finds a cathedral’s six-day musical smorgasbord


Southwell Minster

Southwell Minster

THE Southwell Music Festival is one of the most successful events to emerge recently on the cathedral music scene. Taking in the August Bank Holiday, it aspires to provide ‘‘the best of Classical Music in the heart of Nottinghamshire’’; and it does.

This was the sixth festival. It has a general manager, Flynn Le Brocq, very much in evidence and settling the programme and amassing performers the year round. About 20 regulars form the backbone. They have successfully lured about 200 individual donors. There is a team of hard-working young assistants. The Festival Hub (tickets and information) works like clockwork; and it newly disports a sociable marquee alongside the desolately beautiful Abbey ruins.

The festival’s founder, Marcus Farnsworth, a former Southwell head chorister and sought-after baritone himself, has collected an array of (often young) performers, including a burgeoning “Festival Apprentice Scheme”. Its education arm flourishes. A fringe is growing. Abetted by a National Lottery grant, Mr Farnsworth has inaugurated a huge Southwell Festival Sinfonia. Southwell Festival Chamber Soloists have evolved, as has a professional Festival Voices ensemble.

It leaves one breathless. Some 30-plus events in six days is not bad going. They run all day, including late nights. The printed programme (Ruth Massey) is richly informative and attractively laid out.

Recitals abound: organ (natur­ally), but also flute, violin (Jennifer Pike, plus the highly inventive Aidan O’Rourke); horns galore (“Round the Horn”), brass ensemble, folk, and close harmony. Younger vocalists (“Voices of Faith”) enlivened Cipriano de Rore, Marenzio, and Ferrabosco; an “American” concert embraced multi-talented Nico Muhly and the blues-inspired composer John Musto; a full-scale North American orchestral jamboree had the audience dancing. Even the US rock group R.E.M. got a look-in.

Frenetically active, endlessly cheery, Farnsworth likes to be up front. In a sense, this is the Marcus Farnsworth week: yet without him there would be no event. Now the Minster’s nave and side aisles are gratifyingly packed to the roof. He pops up everywhere: as baritone, reader, conductor. He seems indefatigable.

This was apparent from the first day’s orchestral concert. Before, however, came an organ recital, by the cathedral’s Assistant Organist, Simon Hogan. The 17-year-old Charles Ives’s Variations on America impudently teases around the tune of “God save the Queen” — also, one discovers, once the anthems of several German states and Tsarist Russia, and still today of Norway and Liechtenstein.

Cecilia McDowall’s varied, viva­cious, sometimes violent work Sounding Heaven and Earth encapsulates in music the poem “Prayer” by George Herbert, and interposes a magical central section, with melody prominent in both pedals and low keyboard. And if that (coincidentally) acquires a Messiaen-like feel, the final scampering rivals Mulet’s scintillating Carillon-Sortie. The fangled history of Southwell’s organ, incidentally, reads like Rowan Atkinson’s public-school roll-call sketch.

McDowall’s manner is original and individual; yet even more daring was Hogan’s main work, the half-hour Symphonie-Passion (originally improvised) by Marcel Dupré. Its opening movement, ‘‘The earth awaiting the Saviour”, reveals a distempered, uneasy world, with contrasts of pace and vivid changes of registration.

Its plainsong roots (“Jesu Redemptor omnium”) shine out, exposed on a low-placed oboe stop, which also unfurls the “Nativity” section, yielding modal repeating patterns, and a curious scherzo-like passage, welcoming the Magi, introducing the carol Adeste Fideles.

The “Crucifixion” movement is, unsurprisingly, violent, featuring chromatic descents and almost monstrous dissonant chords, a gentler semitonic motif rounding off. The last (“Resurrection”) introduces a toccata, lightly registered by Hogan to generate contrast, with clear declamation of plainsong (Adoro te devote) once more, and ebullient transfiguring patterns to conclude.

Farnsworth brought his prowess as a conductor to fielding two Fourth Symphonies. From Mendels­sohn’s ‘‘Italian” Symphony he prised out the usual zest and flair, generating swashbuckling dynamic contrasts. Vigorous folk music-inspired melodies zipped around in the finale. The plum was Mahler’s Fourth, whose lilting start prefaces the eerie, deathly dance (compare Saint-Saëns) of a mistuned violin, then the besottingly beautiful slow movement (Mahler thought it his best).

The enchanted vocal Finale, with its childlike innocence invoking, in turn, Saints Peter, John, Luke, Martha, Ursula, and Cecilia, plus rural gobbledygook (“Good apples, good pears, good grapes. . . Would you like venison, or hare?”) wove
its magic, owing to the soprano Alison Rose: this was an evening to relish.

A biblical saga supplied the main choral concert. Handel’s Israel in Egypt was written, as the composer Martin Bussey explained in a series of incisive pre-concert talks, in a matter of a few weeks. What impressed greatly was the predominant youth of the chorus, who were intelligent (rather than merely bombastic) in their approach.

Mendelssohn skilfully underlines the text, by numerous repetitions, which drive home the meaning and invigorate the words. The plagues of Egypt are shared around, here a solo, here the smug, triumphant chorus. Staccato hailstones, and an awesome adagio for the enwrapping darkness, resembled onomatopoeia. Their escape invoked delicate flute and strings, and a staggering pianissimo at “He rebuked the Red Sea”, and wild drumming was sought to overwhelm the enemy’s waterlogged chariots.

There is more for the soloists in part two — fortunately; for they add crucial variety. A Purcellian refinement occasionally peeps through. The famous solo for mezzo-soprano, “Thou shalt bring them in” (Jessica Gillingwater), was quite gorgeous, em­bracing appoggiatura-like falling patterns; so was every contribution from the tenor, James Robinson.

Faced with some tricky, part-concealed coloratura, the chorus sopranos excelled. Additional solos from the choir were especially good, while the orchestra, Farnsworth again presiding, swapped tender pianissimo for violent fortissimo.

When the Baroque trumpets split apart it was clear how parts of this oratorio have the buoyant thrust of Handel’s famous Coronation anthems. With such an exciting per­formance from all participants, it was yet more proof that Southwell’s well-run Festival is a brilliant addition to music in the Midlands.

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