REVIEW: Leamington Music Festival

Roderick Williams


Record attendances, record temperatures plus another imaginative and innovative programme, produced an unmitigated triumph in Leamington over the Bank Holiday weekend. From opening night on Friday with music by Smetana, the founder of Czech music, and Dvořák, to the now traditional last night with Roderick Williams, this 29th annual event of eleven concerts is firmly established as Britain’s foremost early summer chamber festival.

Meanwhile, with Jephson Gardens bathed in sunshine, work began to refurbish the Czechoslovak Memorial Fountain. Leamington Music’s enthusiastic and loyal supporters, augmented by 30 members of the Dvořák Society, happily endured rising temperatures, notably in the conservatory, during Sunday afternoon’s talk to celebrate the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia after the Great War. Many sought refuge in the cool of All Saints Church on Bank Holiday Monday morning to enjoy what must be described as one of the most uplifting and exhilarating organ recitals of recent years, with works by Parry, Martinů and Janáček in the programme.

Jephson Memorial Gardens

Festival Director, Richard Phillips maintained the focus of recent years on the horrors and atrocities of the Great War and the impact on many Czech musicians and their contemporaries. By way of example, Erwin Schulhoff (1894 -1942) was sent to two fronts before being given leave to travel to Cologne to compose his first quartet, which reflects those ghastly experiences. Josef Suk (1874 – 1935) felt the need to compose a tribute to war heroes in 1920 – his Legend of Dead Victors Op 35. Many more endured traumatic experiences; Martinů probably didn’t hear a note of his Sextet in E flat, and Debussy (1862 – 1918), too, suffered ill health at the time of the Great War.

Set against these setbacks and hindrances, many remarkable Czech composers featured in Phillips’ increasingly contemporary programming model with string quartets, violinists, clarinettists, pianists and wind ensembles playing volumes of their wonderful music. Of all the musicians present, three cellists collected the most compliments. Michal Kanka of the Pražák String Quartet caught the eye in two concerts featuring both Smetana’s String Quartets No 1 in E minor and No 2 in D minor; Kanka’s work in the ‘love song’ third movement of No 1 and his control of the furious last movement of No 2 were outstanding. Marek Jerie, cellist, with returning favourites, Guarneri Piano Trio, gave of his very animated best on Saturday night and was partly responsible for the memorable moment at the end of the moving first movement of Smetana’s Trio in G minor, when a spontaneous “wow” uttered by a front row regular will have been clearly picked up by the recording equipment installed by BBC Radio 3. Listen out for this moment in one of three Festival recordings to be broadcast during the period May 15 -18. Let’s hope the technicians allow the spontaneity to remain!

Guarneri’s players maintain a watchful eye on each other which certainly inspires confidence in their audience. Confidence abounded, too, during the Warwickshire Music Concert featuring pupils from local schools, the rising stars of the future. Isabella Azima, currently attending Stratford Grammar School and the Junior Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, oozed confidence during Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, and Iona Frenguelli, a final-year pupil at Kenilworth School Sixth Form, captured attention as she introduced her previously unannounced piece by confidently confirming she would play Zemlinsky adding, “if it sounds wrong it will be right!” This is a 17 year-old with talent and an impish approach to life.

A Leamington Music Festival would be incomplete without Ensemble 360: on this occasion their wind ensemble examined themes of youth and impishness. Janáček’s Mladi extols youth, and Schulhoff designed BassNachtigall to provoke an audience; this work for contrabassoon did just that! Invention matters in this form of entertainment; how fortunate the Festival persuaded Simon Davies to travel from Manchester to perform. Pianist, Benjamin Powell, introduced a blend of jazz and chamber with Martinů’s Sextet in E flat, the blues movement reminiscent of Erroll Garner at his peak. Matthew Hunt’s determined clarinet and alto sax playing and the clever juggling of piccolo and flute by Katherine Bryan led the way to the close of this progressively ‘contemporary’ evening with Janáček’s epitome of the happiness of youth. Additionally, a work by Miloslav Kabeláč (1908 – 1979) made its début at this Leamington Music Festival with Ensemble 360 playing his Wind Sextet Op 8. Kabeláč fell out with the Czech authorities during the Second World War and his work was seldom heard. Only now is he becoming better known. Schulhoff and Martinů also featured, and with Kabeláč, are three 20th century composers deserving of much more air time.

Young clarinettists arrived on Monday to enjoy an evening with Michael Collins. Not to be outshone, the night saw one of the best surprises of the Festival with the emergence of the quartet accompanying Collins, the Piatti String Quartet – and the third cellist collecting compliments: Jessie Ann Richardson, founder member of the quartet. Rated very highly when they visited Leamington in 2016, they are now an international favourite and will play at the Aldeburgh Festival in June. Having taken their name from the great 19th century cellist, Alfredo Piatti, Jessie is first to admit she feels a responsibility to be the glue which binds the foursome together. Never without a smile, and always keeping a watchful eye on her violin colleagues, their performance of Schulhoff’s Quartet No 1 was dramatic, extraordinarily technically successful in high registers, required masses of pizzicato, ponticello and col legno playing and was delivered without an aversion to playing quietly. It was profound and utterly wonderful in its outcome and, deservedly, received one of the warmest receptions of the weekend.

Jack McNeill, Leamington Prize Winner in 2010, David Le Page and Viv McLean rescued the ‘graveyard’ session on Tuesday lunchtime with a sparkling, witty and clean performance of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, composed in 1918 with Le Page’s playing moving from guttural to whimsical.

And so to the remarkable Festival last night with the Roderick Williams’ happy coincidence discovery that his backyard was used by Kineton-billeted troops in 1941 – the Memorial Fountain refurbishment is a pleasing reminder of the role those brave troops played. Williams’ singing was sublime. Plans for 2019 are in place for the 30th Festival, appetites are already whetted.