Classical music / Spitalfields Festival London Wraysbury Festival Staines

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At this time of year, England is riddled with music festivals. Of course they come in all shapes and sizes: the grand ones - Bath, Brighton, Cheltenham and Aldeburgh; the medium-sized ones - Lichfield, Salisbury and Spitalfields: and the very tiniest - the Wraysbury Festival. Common to all is a need to focus and some achieve this far better than others. Generally speaking, in these days of straightened finances, mixed programming is preferred to hard-core specialising within single concerts as it not only attracts the punters but also offers some kind of perspective to any new music. And it is very noticeable nowadays just how many festivals choose to emphasise contemporary work.

My week consisted of dips into two festivals, both of which presented concerts in churches. The first, last Thursday, was in the beautiful Hawksmoor church that is the Spitalfields Festival main venue. The second, on Saturday, was in St Peter's, Staines, a remarkable red-brick affair complete with green copper spire, perched idyllically on the edge of the Thames. Neither, of course, offer ideal acoustics. Spitalfields gave the most elegant of concerts, planning not only each work in a pleasing context to the other and skilfully using all the players most of the time but managing a delightful symmetry of key - an E flat beginning in Mozart's K 499 Piano Concerto and an E flat ending with Mendelssohn's Octet. The Mendelssohn requires eight strings so Mozart's concerto was cut down to that number, and the BT Scottish Ensemble, surrounding the piano, gave a touching performance with the pianist William Howard. It might have been better to keep the lid on because the sound was horribly diffuse - indeed an "authentic" instrument might have been welcome. But this could not be because the main interest in the programme was the premiere of a totally delightful piano concerto by Judith Weir - again for the same string complement (including double bass) as the Mozart. Weir's work, in three movements, lasts 15 minutes and is a triumph of economy. At times Brittenish with a Scottish spin, she has brilliantly succeeded in writing a concerto that should attain popular success. Once again the acoustic "flattened" the effect of markings in the score - the 1st movement cross-rhythms and accents undeniably muffled - but what marvellous writing, at once reminiscent of Brahms (in her elongations of phrases) and Schubert in such transparent textures - the piano part is frequently in octaves. The concerto was written for Howard who gave an utterly convinced performance.

But how many composers does it take to find one Judith Weir? The "Great Wraysbury Modern Music Marathon" thought about 40 would suffice. Marathons are, of course, endurance tests and after three hours and 20 pieces, I fled. Mainly student works played by students from virtually every music college in the land left the ears tired and bewildered. Just two works remain with me - a delightful song by Patrick Baxter (Oxford University), and a lively little piece by Edurne Urbani from the Purcell School.

Annette Morreau