Way out west

Cheltenham Festival
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The Independent Culture

Having started grandly with a new opera by its director, Michael Berkeley, the Cheltenham Festival ended with a marvellous series of chamber concerts that fully justified his willingness to forego the big bang closing symphony concert in favour of something more intimate and reflective. The focus was Pitville Pump Room, a suitably genteel environment and acoustically one of the best halls anywhere for this kind of music.

Having started grandly with a new opera by its director, Michael Berkeley, the Cheltenham Festival ended with a marvellous series of chamber concerts that fully justified his willingness to forego the big bang closing symphony concert in favour of something more intimate and reflective. The focus was Pitville Pump Room, a suitably genteel environment and acoustically one of the best halls anywhere for this kind of music.

What drew me initially to the Pitville concerts was a series of new and newish chamber works, including two or three by the composer-in-residence, Judith Weir, and new pieces by Diana Burrell and Wolfgang Rihm. But alas for earthly hopes, Rihm failed to complete his "New Work" (as the brochure optimistically called it), and an argument with a paving stone kept me from the National Youth Orchestra's ensemble concert, with the Burrell commission and Weir's piano concerto. For me, only Weir's new Piano Quartet, in the Schubert Ensemble's Sunday morning concert, survived this chapter of accidents.

Weir has never lost her delicate sense of historical irony. Just as she says that the "crashingly loud" type of piano concerto was never to her taste, so she knows that the piano quartet has often been either a sub-concerto (Mozart E flat) or a poor man's symphony (Brahms G minor). Did she know That Fauré's great C minor quartet would be ending the programme?

Fauré launches majestically into a big unison string tune punctuated by piano chords, an opening nobody plays more compellingly than the Schubert Ensemble. Weir opens both her movements with string tunes, the first against piano chords, the second without piano, and she persists in this split - traditionally the bane of piano-quartet composers - as if it were the sole point of writing for the medium.

The result is a sophisticated but poetic tease, exquisitely scored, especially in the folksy second movement based on a Louisiana ballad called "Blanche comme la neige" and itself studiously white, with slow string chords and high piano octaves, then piano chords and string octaves, and almost no integration in the classical sense. Weir's tiny "El Rey de Francia", played here as an encore is a concentrated study on the same idea - a fantasy recreation (I suppose) of Sephardic folk music, brilliantly executed. But that lasts only a couple of minutes.

Weir has, nevertheless, the enviable gift of originality. This was also Fauré's great talent. With Franck, whose astonishing, exhausting Piano Quintet was the big work in the Belcea Quartet's programme on Thursday, everything is saturation: cramped, chromatic harmonies, themes that pester the ear and the mind. Ghastly as that may sound, the Belcea and Imogen Cooper turned it into a gripping experience, if not one, one would want instantly repeated. This young string quartet also gave a highly individual, subtle reading of the Debussy, and the best performance I've ever heard of Kurtág's enigmatic, obsessive Microludes.

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