MUSIC / Murder in the cathedral: Lichfield festival, Cheltenham Festival

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The Independent Culture
New cello concertos seem something of a speciality with the Lichfield Festival. Last year the Cathedral hosted the British premiere of John Casken's, this year it saw the debut of one by Michael Blake Watkins. Lichfield audiences now take such novelties in their stride and the new work was given a warm reception on Saturday. This may in part have been due to a striking opening on the horns that seemed ideally suited to the Cathedral's austere acoustic.

The new concerto's greatest asset is the approachability of its musical language - full of assurance and with a clear sense of purpose founded on broadly tonal harmonic movement. Its main problem, and this is a serious one in a work that eschews cadenzas, is the balance between the solo cellist and orchestra. Far too often the audience could see the soloist hard at work, but equally often it was impossible to hear when he stopped and started. In the less congested passages it was quite clear that Tim Hugh was playing with commitment and distinction, but much of the time he was submerged by an orchestra involved in a strident, determinedly symphonic argument. The brass-heavy orchestration and over-padded string sound would have made compositional sense without a soloist, but did not seem to be the stuff of which string concertos are made.

Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic had already established their credentials with a superbly vital performance of Ravel's La Valse at the start of the concert. An utterly homogeneous rendition of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique did much to restore a sense of an orchestra in balance after the Blake Watkins concerto. Tortelier's reading of the work is intensely dramatic and completely captivating: every orchestral detail counted, right down to some terrifyingly other-wordly bells in the finale.

Meanwhile the steady march of premieres at the Cheltenham Festival continued with the unveiling on Tuesday of Michael Nyman's piano trio entitled Goodbye Frankie, Goodbye Benny in the Pittville Rump Room. It seems that, while Nyman was composing the work, the world lost in distressingly short order both Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill. The Trio thus became a kind of valediction to these two comic talents. One of the things for which Frankie Howerd was most valued was his ability to keep an audience entertained without really saying anything; much the same could be said of the new Trio. There are moments of ear-catching sonority and occasional, enjoyable melodic breaks, but if anything of substance was communicated, this listener was not privy to it. Like Frankie Howerd, Nyman strikes poses, some familiar, others less so, but unlike the great comedian, he does not seem to be able to get away with repetition. The writing for instruments was also disappointing. The Trio of London, after turning in a magnificent performance of Arensky's delightful D minor Trio, seemed less at ease with the demands made on them by Nyman. The requirements were fearsome enough, but they rarely amounted to a successful use of the medium.