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REVIEW: Tallis Scholars and Paul Lewis among the highlights at Chipping Campden Music Festival so far

THAT annual extravaganza of glorious sound known as the Chipping Campden Music Festival is in full swing again this year with a programme of concerts amply justifying its reputation for variety and world-class artistic excellence.

Both of these factors were in evidence right from the beginning, with a recital of Schubert piano sonatas by Paul Lewis last Friday evening (5th May), followed on Monday evening by the huge contrast of the Tallis Scholars singing English Renaissance music.

Mr Lewis, a virtuoso pianist of international renown who is also president of the festival, performed all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in four concerts at the BBC Proms in 2010, with different orchestras and different conductors.

But like his mentor, the legendary pianist Alfred Brendel – who also has a role at this year’s festival – Mr Lewis is known as a great interpreter of the piano music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

Chipping Campden Music Festival
Chipping Campden Music Festival

As president of the festival it was fitting that he opened it. And he chose to do so with three sonatas written by Schubert between 1819 and 1825 that demonstrate the Austrian maestro’s youthful originality and mastery of piano composition. (Since he died at the age of 31 all of Schubert’s works can be considered “youthful”, even his latest and greatest…)

Mr Lewis’s enviable knack is that he gives the impression he’s playing each piece for the first time, as though this is a genuine communication between the composer and the audience, with himself as the vehicle through which this extraordinary contact is achieved.

In other words in these sonatas – no. 15 in C major D840, no. 13 in A major D664 and no. 16 in A minor D845 – you get the feeling, through the interpretative brilliance of Mr Lewis, that Schubert is here talking to you directly. A lot of it must be due to the artist’s powerful rapport with the composer. What else can explain it?

Another artist who had precisely this quality, of course, was that great influence on Mr Lewis, Alfred Brendel, now aged 92 and retired from the concert platform but still very active as an adviser to young musicians.

Mr Brendel’s affection for Chipping Campden, and his praise as a pianist for the acoustics of St James’ Church, the festival’s venue, is oft-quoted. But at 11 a.m. on Saturday (13th May), he will be turning his attention to chamber music for strings.

He’ll be giving a masterclass on Schubert’s String Quintet in C major D956, a work of unsurpassable greatness written in the closing weeks of the composer’s short life.

The location for this fascinating event will be the Cidermill Theatre in Chipping Campden, and Mr Brendel will be working with the young Brompton String Quartet and a second cellist. Interestingly, Mr Brendel’s son, the cellist Adrian Brendel, will be playing second cello in a performance of this quintet with the Skampa Quartet at the festival on Monday evening (15th May).

Meanwhile last Monday evening the Tallis Scholars, directed by their founder, Peter Phillips, performed a collection of works for unaccompanied voices, mainly by the English Renaissance composers William Byrd (c1540-1623) and Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585).

The purity and precision of their sound was magnificent. The four sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses gave memorable accounts of some of the greatest music written in Europe in that pre-Baroque era.

And the setting of the church, with a packed, rapt audience, was perfect for this very special occasion.

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