Britten Sinfonia/Masson/Macgregor/Youssef, Bath Abbey, Bath
Monday 02 June 2008
Joanna MacGregor knows how to party, and I'm not just talking about the opening Party in the City for the 60th birthday of the Bath International Music Festival. The whole feel of this year's festival radiates bubbly enjoyment. It is, of course, a celebration of MacGregor's eclectic enthusiasms, with bold mixtures of artists drawn from the widest musical spectrum. Oddly, they sit perfectly in this historic city.
Bath isn't blessed with acoustically faultless buildings, and Bath Abbey is one of the worst. But somehow, a programme of Bach, Messiaen, and a world premiere by Tunisian-born Dhafer Youssef worked splendidly on its own terms. MacGregor was soloist and leader in Bach's D-minor concerto with the Britten Sinfonia strings – and how she radiated her joy. She brings real "swing" to Bach, enjoying the unusual rhythms and "blue" dissonances, pointing effortlessly to the links between centuries ago and today. Her line in the hauntingly beautiful slow movement could have been one long improvisation.
Youssef's Les Ondes Orientales was more of a mixed bag. MacGregor, commissioned by the BBC, invited Youssef to provide a piece allowing the two of them to improvise within a composition for string ensemble. He is both an oud player and an outstanding vocalist. How he achieved such high sounds is a mystery, but the acoustic favoured his fervent cries. Less successful was the piece as a whole, at times aping minimalism, generally slithering around in a globalised cultural soup.
Acoustically, the most mushy was Messiaen's Trois Petites Liturgies de la présence divine, where sound and ensemble began to resemble a John Cage composition, and there was little conductor Diego Masson could do to clear the clouds. The ondes martenot (admirably played by Cynthia Millar) would suddenly emerge far too prominently, as indeed did MacGregor's keyboard. But the Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir and the Bath Camerata tackled Messiaen's cruelly high and exposed writing with admirable aplomb.
Festival continues to 7 June (01225 463362)
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