Cheltenham Festival, Cheltenham

Imagination and novelty
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The Independent Culture

The Last Royal Philharmonic Society commission to be premiered outside London was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Now, 177 years on, and not before time, the RPS, along with the BBC, has commissioned Simon Holt to produce a new work, not for Vienna but for that equally fecund musical breeding ground, the Cheltenham Festival.

Holt's Two Movements for String Quartet, inspired by Emily Dickinson's poem, "I heard a Fly buzz when I died", focuses in turn on two images from the poem: "Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz", and "The Stillness in the Room". Holt describes Dickinson's work as a mixture of precision and wildness, "chaos in a box", and in the hushed atmosphere of the Pittville Pump Room, the words of the printed poem came movingly, almost painfully, alive in the final bars, "And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see".

Full of subtle beauties, conveyed with perfectly blended tone by the engaging young Belcea Quartet, the score's visionary serenity was punctuated by dangers and disturbances (the nervous energy of that intermittently buzzing fly), bringing a sting to a performance that slipped astonishingly effortlessly into this context of Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven.

Despite the composer's apprehension that an earlier string quartet might collapse and vanish without trace during its creation, the Arditti Quartet's urgently communicative reading of Holt's Danger of the Disappearance of Things, brought a tangible sense of security and solidity to its disembodied musical gestures. The concert also featured Irvine Arditti's cunningly compiled string-quartet arrangement of Harmonies (John Cage's loose interpretation of four-part choral pieces from his Apartment House, interspersed with Sonatas and Interludes, his tour de force for prepared piano). It began, entirely appropriately, with Cage's Water Music for prepared piano, whistles, water containers, cards and wooden stick.

Joanna MacGregor's mercurial enactment of this highly visual score conjured up as much of a storm inside as had just raged outside to the dismay of those involved in one of the Festival's many educational activities, an open-air exploration of that master magician Cage in what was prophetically advertised as an afternoon of "mystery and illusion".

The problem with the Cheltenham Festival these days is deciding what one can possibly miss in a fortnight. Very little, since the programme spills over – morning, evening and late-night – with imagination and novelty. Take the Town Hall, encouragingly full on a weekday at 10.15pm, where Martyn Brabbins conducted premieres by Julian Anderson and Jonathan Harvey. The exotic textures and faultless sense of pace and rhythm of Anderson's interpretation of the Song of Solomon, Shir Hashirim, was given an eloquent reading by Valdine Anderson, sensitively accompanied by Sinfonia 21.

Harvey's Bird Concerto with Pianosong recalling the luminous colours, songs and cries of 40 Californian birds, and stretching "real" birdsong all the way to human proportions as if to represent giant birds, is not a work for ornithophobes. With electronic tape played out on surround sound, a keyboard on which Joanna MacGregor winged her birdlike way with resourcefulness of spirit and technique, and instruments in chirruping dialogue, the effect is brilliant, and evocative of Messiaen on speed.

If Sphinx, Holt's new work for cor anglais and gongs, made less of an impression than his eerie and fearsomely difficult Banshee for oboe and percussion, Melinda Maxwell and Richard Benjafield's appealing late-night recital was somewhat hijacked by Xenakis. In Benjafield's hugely engrossing performance, his uncompromisingly virtuoso percussion piece Psappha resounded violently around St Matthew's Church, as if to raise the dead or rouse anyone tempted to drop off at the end of a long day.

It would have been good to hear Robin Holloway, another featured composer, in one of his orchestral works, the Second or Third Concerto for Orchestra, perhaps. But what contrast between his unremittingly intense Woefully Arrayed, expressively sung by the Choir of King's College, and his B flat Serenade, premiered by London Winds. The delicately coloured and finely crafted chamber work declares its affiliation to Mozart in its instrumentation (it was programmed with two of Mozart's Serenades), while romantically revisiting Bach and the Baroque in the stately Sarabande.

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