Can there be a more charming and intimate chamber-music series anywhere in Britain than the Gower Festival? It takes place on the beautiful peninsula west of Swansea in the last fortnight of July, and has just completed its 32nd year. The concerts are all given in the local medieval churches and discovering these is a treat in itself: from Ilston, with its bat colony and kingfisher streams, to Oxwich, hidden in woods on a point almost out to sea.
Coastal air and light pervades everything, the sun usually manages to shine, and wine appears as if by magic in the intervals. Natural benefits aside, the festival also has a great knack, largely owing to the skills and instincts of its music director, Gareth Walters, of showcasing brilliant young performers before they become famous. In recent years, the Belcea Quartet, the Australian guitarist Craig Ogden, the violinist Alina Ibragimova, and further back, an unknown bass-baritone from north Wales called Bryn Terfel, have all made their mark here. In short, the very best come here to enjoy the light, the acoustics and a warmth of reception that makes them want to return.
This year, we had the Allegri Quartet, supplemented by an extra viola and cello, performing Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht in its sextet form, the last word in lush fin-de-siècle harmonic twist and melt, a tension of anguish and rapture that kept the audience as still as if they were nailed down. The enterprising festival committee, no doubt foreseeing such enforced paralysis, have started selling their own-logo foam cushions, just the thing for a Victorian-issue pew. People streamed through the porch, waving them at one another.
Earlier, the Prazak Quartet had provided breathless passions of their own in Janacek's String Quartet No 1 (Kreutzer), with its rat-like scuttlings around a ghostly ballroom, thrillingly played, before releasing us back to grateful comfort with some late Dvorak. Another highlight was Ashley Wass's performance of Elgar's own piano transcription of the Enigma Variations, giving its musical logic and grandeur a freshly austere focus.
But perhaps most perfectly suited to the atmospheres of the venues were the singers. Sopranos at previous festivals have included Elin Manahan Thomas and Lucy Crowe, while this year, in the church at Ilston, the not-yet-well-enough-known Anna Stéphany performed Schumann's notoriously difficult Frauenliebe und Leben with real commitment and authority. The applause sent the bats on a wild whirl through the ancient beams.
N H Reeve, Swansea