Classical : CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL Round-up

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The Independent Culture
Under its new director, Michael Berkeley, the Cheltenham Festival has maintained its policy of featuring particular composers. If some external features remain the same, there is a perceptible newness in the ornamentation, not least the visit of a "Surreal Circus" and a huge inflatable sculpture by Maurice Agis called Colourspace. It is a pity that Gyorgy Kurtag, whose music is getting a comprehensive airing this year, has not been able to be present to give insight into his somewhat gnomic muse, but his is only one strand in a festival that is also offering a cycle of Bartok quartets and Sibelius symphonies.

At the other end of the scale from Kurtag's fastidious miniaturism was the British premiere of Jonathan Dove's An airmail letter from Mozart, written for the early instrument players of the New Mozart Ensemble. As "historically informed" as the performances of the New Mozart Ensemble itself, Dove's new work is an evocation of the kind of letter Mozart might have written to Constanze had he been a jet-setting composer of today.

Dove is well known as a marvellous orchestrator (and re-orchestrator of the CBTO Ring), and yet the particular qualities of the early strings and horns only rarely emerged (it would be hard to imagine the Holstian, open-air start having a markedly different effect on modern instruments). In the slower passages, the vibrato-less string-playing did seem to be adding something new to the modern repertoire. The piece is a romp and should certainly not be taken too seriously, though the composer's over- eagerness to please meant that, when the letter had come to its attractive, undemanding end, it was not really the kind of epistle you would automatically fold up and keep.

Kurtag's Ruckblick - A Homage to Stockhausen, imaginatively laid out on the floor rather than the stage of Cheltenham Town Hall, was described as an "exhibition". Although it is made up of a comprehensive selection of the composer's music in various arrangements, the analogy of the art exhibition seemed a false one: no one encouraged you to wander round, and there was no real possibility of leaving early if you didn't like it.

The fact that this seemingly endless series of short pieces did not fall apart was as much a tribute to the consistency of Kurtag's style and some shrewd manipulation as to the materialisation of some mysterious whole. Cannily, he framed the piece with the same sweet music, imparting the comforting feel that the whole thing had been an excursion to and from the same fixed point. There was a lot to like in a landscape that encompasses poignancy and silliness, compositional grit and pointless vacuity. What of substance is said is rather harder to tell - it was more like the chattering of a lively mind which from time to time impresses with an inspired epigram.

Ruckblick's hold on the audience, I'm sure, had much to do with the physical impact of a brilliant performance by Thomas Ades (the composer-pianist whose own Powder Her Face opened the festival), John Constable, John Wallace and Enno Senft. Kurtag's Officium breve was given an equally committed performance by the Takacs Quartet the day after. Despite the sad news of the death of Gabor Ormai, a founder member of the group, the Takacs gave irresistible accounts of quartets by Bartok and Schubert, as well as making compelling sense of Kurtag's attenuated lines.

n Festival box-office: 01242 227979

n 'Ruckblick - Homage to Stockhausen' is broadcast in BBC Radio 3's 'Hear and Now', Friday 10.40pm