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REVIEW: Chipping Campden Music Festival, 7th to 21st May

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Reviewed in the Herald, 12th May by PRESTON WITTS

THE 2022 Chipping Campden Music Festival got under way this week with an electrifying masterclass of a recital by the tenor Mark Padmore and his accompanist, the virtuoso pianist Dame Mitsuko Uchida.

It was quite a coup for the festival’s founder and artistic director Charlie Bennett to have acquired the services of these two internationally renowned performers. Dame Mitsuko was making her first appearance at the festival while Mr Padmore – who’d been there before – was in the final few laps of his glittering career on the recital platform (this year is scheduled to be his last as a recitalist in front of live audiences).

It was therefore fitting that the major work in their programme on Monday evening was Schwanengesang D957 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). The title means “Swan Song” and is the last of the great collections of songs written by the composer (and produced within the final three months of his short life).

St James' Church, the main venue for the Chipping Campden Music Festival. Photo: Traumrune/Wikimedia (56993842)
St James' Church, the main venue for the Chipping Campden Music Festival. Photo: Traumrune/Wikimedia (56993842)

By way of an appetiser the recital began with four songs by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Great though these were, it was Schwanengesang that most people had come to hear.

The 14 songs in the set cover a vast emotional range, requiring a vocal and pianistic eloquence that only the most supreme artists can fully master. Some idea of the greatness of the performance they’d just witnessed could be gauged by the reaction of members of the audience as they filed out of St James’ Church: “stunning”, “a masterclass” and “brilliant beyond belief” were just a few of the comments being uttered.

Interestingly, although the festival has its own Steinway grand piano, Dame Mitsuko was playing on a Steinway specially shipped in for her to Chipping Campden. It arrived at 10am on Monday and was prepared and tuned for her throughout the day, ready for the concert.

Reviewed in the Herald, 19th May by PRESTON WITTS

THE cultural breadth of this year’s Chipping Campden Music Festival was on vivid display on Sunday evening when Chineke! – Europe’s first majority Black ethnically diverse orchestra – gave a concert rich in variety and, indeed, sheer fun.

Founded in 2015 by the double bass player Chi-chi Nwanuko, who was on her usual effervescent form among the strings at this concert, the orchestra has become part of the firmament of musical life in he UK and helped to launch some distinguished careers, including that of the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Held at the festival’s usual venue of St James’ Church in the town, the concert was conducted by Cuba-born Odaline de la Martinez and began with a warm and vivacious rendering of the Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22 by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904).

This was followed by a performance of the Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) with the hugely talented Armand Djikoloum, who was born and brought up in France, as the soloist. Written during the Second World War, when Vaughan Williams was in his seventies, the concerto is renowned for its lyricism and virtuoso showmanship. In the suave and technically superb grip of Mr Djikoloum and the orchestra the work was given a trenchant outing of which the composer would have been proud.

The choice of a piece by Vaughan Williams at this year’s festival is especially poignant since he was born in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds and 2022 is the 150th anniversary of his birth.

After the interval we were treated to a short work specially commissioned by Chineke! by the contemporary composer James B. Wilson called Free-man, commemorating the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, when protesters boycotted the Bristol Omnibus Company for four months over its refusal to employ Black and Asian drivers and conductors.

The concert ended with a joyful and dance-inspiring piece in five movements called African Suite by the Nigeria-born composer Fela Sowande (1905-1987). In many ways it was a showpiece for orchestra which could have been written especially with Chineke! in mind, given the verve and eloquence with which the players performed it.

One of the concerts in the festival’s first week worthy of note (along with all the others!) was a performance of piano trios by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms by Imogen Cooper (piano), Henning Kraggerud (violin) and Adrian Brendel (cello). As always, effortless excellence…

Reviewed in the Herald, 26th May by PRESTON WITTS

IN its second and final week, Chipping Campden Music Festival hosted one of the world’s finest cellists, a globally-renowned pianist, a young recent winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition and a highly-esteemed instrumental and vocal ensemble.

That’s not to mention an array of other gifted artists who pass through Chipping Campden during a fortnight in May every year and display their talents at St James’ Church as though it’s the most natural place in the world to be.

This would be a considerable achievement in a major city, but for a small town in the Cotswolds it’s a feat of exceptional classiness.

On Tuesday of last week the audience was treated to a spellbinding performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto by Steven Isserlis. Two nights later we got the 24-year-old Kazakhstan-born pianist Alim Beisembayev giving the festival’s resident Steinway a boisterous going-over in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

The following night one of the UK’s leading choir and Early Music ensembles, Ex Cathedra, performed the St Matthew Passion by Johan Sebastian Bach, a work which must surely be one of the greatest examples of artistic and spiritual endeavour in human history.

And as if all this were not enough, the festival ended on Saturday evening with the great Piano Concerto in D minor, K466 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by the superb American pianist Richard Goode. Mr Goode, a native of New York, is no stranger to this festival and combined his visit with a solo recital of works by Schubert, Schumann and Bartok on Wednesday evening and a piano masterclass on Thursday morning.

His performance of the Mozart concerto on Saturday was one of the highlights of the entire festival. The precision and sheer elegance of his playing, in glorious accord with the Chipping Campden Festival Academy Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Hull, was reminiscent of the late, great Sir Clifford Curzon, whose magic touch prompted the music critic Neville Cardus to describe him as “the greatest living Mozartian”. Mr Goode is, indeed, in Sir Clifford’s league…

The festival orchestra under its conductor Mr Hull and leader Ruth Rogers get better every year. It is a wonderful combination of experienced musicians and younger players.

For these young ones to find themselves in an orchestra accompanying the likes of Steven Isserlis, with his powerful sound, and Mr Goode, with his great style and musical eloquence, will be an experience they’ll never forget.

During the final evening the festival’s founder and artistic director, Charlie Bennett, announced that the pianist Sir András Schiff will be part of the line-up next year. Yet another massive coup for this small town in Gloucestershire…

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