REVIEW: Leamington Music Festival

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Tasmin Little

Clive Peacock reviews the Leamington Music Festival, Royal Pump Room, which continues until 10th May

With this landmark 30th Leamington Music Festival beyond the midway point, it is pertinent to consider how hard the wonderful musicians who appear year after year need to work to survive. Difficult conversations develop when engaging musicians in talking about work life balance. For many, the professional’s life is a very tough life. Fortunately, this year’s Festival is producing evidence of how some professionals do manage to work through the struggles and do achieve that work life balance.

At Friday night’s Festival launch, Tasmin Little spoke enthusiastically about its sumptuous programming. More importantly, she outlined her plans as she begins to reduce her workload and devote more time to developing her interests in music education and broadcasting, in an attempt to achieve that sought after work life balance. But not before she thrilled a full house with a sizzling performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No 2 in D Op94a, with its diabolical scherzo and moving andante. She gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying what she’s doing; she deserved the rapturous applause.

Sitting behind her at the piano is her new mentee, accompanist, Andrey Gugnin, a young Russian multi-prize winner. He was given responsibility to develop the well-trodden Leamington Music Schubert trail; Moment Musicale No 4 in C sharp Minor D780 was a thrilling taster of his solo concert which became a significant Festival highlight on Bank Holiday Monday.

Before that treat, super Saturday reached exalted heights with the welcome return of the Leonore Piano Trio playing the Arensky Trio No 1 in D minor Op32, unquestionably a masterpiece, at times a very elegant dialogue between instruments.   In a programme of contrasts, Leonore continued the Schubert trail with a powerfully convincing delivery of Trio No1 in B flat D898, an exhausting, full-blooded venture; an astonishing performance happily exhausting many in the audience.

“Dawn chorus day” Sunday, belonged to Raphael Wallfisch. Here is a man who has attained the work life balance many of his professional colleagues strive to achieve. Accompanied by the effervescent John York, Raphael’s rendition of Schubert’s Introduction, Theme and Variations in B flat D968a zipped along. Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor is full of dark intrigue. Raphael’s very, very low register playing and the long pizzicato passages mark the work as one he would choose to play; so too, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor ‘Arpeggione’ D821 and the Delius Sonata made famous by Beatrice Harrison during her BBC duets with nightingales. He stares occasionally into the distance, he puffs out his cheeks and then captures the affection of his audience with his very infectious smile. Here is work life balance in spades! What a performance, made even more enjoyable by well- chosen encores, firstly a tribute to Richard Phillips and his team for all their hard work with Martinů’s Arabesque, followed by a tribute to the great cellist Pablo Casals and his Song of the Birds bringing the morning of “dawn chorus day” to a perfect close.

Seven young musicians performed for the Warwickshire Music Advanced Musicians annual concert. A potential successor to Jess Gillham emerged in Luke Hayward from Stratford – if he can be persuaded to continue his music studies. Nuneaton flautist, Madelyn Green, also deserves mention for her playing of In Ireland by Herbert Hamilton Harty.

Roderick Williams joined Ensemble 360 to continue the day’s ‘ornithological’ theme with Skempton’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem offers Roderick the chance to be tender, humorous and teasing, as well as chastening with that most telling line, ‘The man hath penance done, And penance more will do’. As ever, the voice is sumptuous. Skempton’s Man and Bat was given its first Leamington performance; perhaps it, too, could become a fixture?

The return of Andrey Gugnin on Bank Holiday Monday was as exciting as everyone had hoped. Here is a pianist who listens to himself whilst he’s playing. Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor Op19 and Tchaikovsky’s Dumka Op59 preceded one of the biggest success stories of the Festival, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The masterly reading of the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks required a performance of huge energy, passion and belief in his own abilities. Suffice to say, a standing ovation was nothing less than Andrey deserved. Where could he be in twenty years in terms of his work life balance? The piano is now in need of retuning!

Long term Leamington favourites, Martinů String Quartet, recruited Gemma Rosefield for Schubert’s magnificent work, Quintet in C D956.   With rising temperatures in the Pump Room, the Martinů team were energised to display the quintessential image of competence.

Contemporary music found its place with four young Southbank Sinfonia members setting out on their international careers. At the request of Leamington Music, the Terezín composer Gideon Klein and his String Trio was played. With Czech composer Jindřich Feld’s Nocturne, they successfully completed another valuable step on their learning curve. Leamington Music debutants, Aronowitz Ensemble, achieved four curtain calls for their outstanding performances of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor Op57 and the seldom heard, Souvenir de Florence Op70 by Tchaikovsky. Quite a Tuesday night! The mouth-watering prospect of Takács on Thursday and Friday, 9 and 10 May is just as exciting.

Clive Peacock