Southwell Festival 2019, 5*****: by William Ruff



Southwell Festival 2019


August 21-26 2019


Southwell Minster




Review: William Ruff



Exceptional performances, imaginative programming, superb presentation: all combine to make Southwell an August paradise for music-lovers



There are 35 events on offer at the Southwell Music Festival this year.  This makes it a paradise for music-lovers – but choosing between them brings pain as well as pleasure.  Selection of some means rejection of others and it’s not uncommon to see consternation on the faces of those realising that they have just missed something exceptional.

There may be a few visitors who manage to sample all the orchestral concerts, recitals, masterclasses, talks, choirs, chamber ensembles, folk music and open-air family events that take place in the Minster and its environs. Not to mention what the Festival fringe is offering.  However, most mere mortals have to choose.

Here’s just a taste.  On Saturday the seemingly impossible happened at lunchtime.  The Minster seemed to shrink to the intimate proportions of a recital hall as violinist (and former BBC Young Musician) Jennifer Pike and pianist James Baillieu played music both very familiar and practically unknown.  Their way with Mozart’s Sonata in G, K.310 was exhilaratingly civilised, equal partners in a musical dialogue which saw them passing ideas from one to the other, each just as happy to lead as to follow.

Most in the audience wouldn’t have known that Vaughan Williams wrote a Violin Sonata, so the two movements they played might have challenged preconceptions, especially the sardonic Scherzo marked by strangely placed accents, syncopations and a distinct feeling of unease.

But everyone would have been comfortably at home in The Lark Ascending – except that this was the original Violin and Piano version, the orchestra’s heat-hazed smoothness replaced by the bell-like piano.  A meltingly beautiful performance of Elgar’s evergreen Salut d’Amour would have brought the recital to an end, if it hadn’t been for the loudly-cheered-for encore of Moszkowski’s violin showpiece Guitar, the perfect end to an imaginative recital played by two expert musicians whose rapport was plain to see.  Jennifer Pike’s friendly, informative introductions – as well as the elegance of her playing – were two key ingredients behind the recital’s success.

You could then have strolled from the small and intimate to the loud and dazzling.  Rugs or folding chairs were recommended for Brass on the Grass, entertainment for all the family in the Walled Garden, where the emphasis was on well-loved tunes and foot-tapping rhythms.

Then just a few minutes later you could saunter along to the public library to hear Martin Bussey give an amusingly informative talk about Handel the oratorio writer, a revelation for anyone who had never strayed further than Messiah.  And this would have been an excellent introduction for all those attending the Festival’s central event, the evening choral concert: Handel’s Israel in Egypt.

Here conductor and Festival Director Marcus Farnsworth did what he and his hand-picked team of singers and players do best: tell a gripping story through vividly dramatic music-making.  The text sprang not only from the throats of the singers but from their eyes too.  The plagues of Israel have never sounded so entertaining and the audience must have felt they should have worn protective clothing to ward off all the blood, blotches, blains, frogs, locusts, flies and hailstones that were being launched so musically towards them.

The Festival Voices was as expert a group of 27 singers as you’ll find anywhere and they provided not only the choruses (thrillingly massive when needed) but all the intensely theatrical solos too.  It wasn’t just the beauty of the voices which impressed: it was also the crystal-clarity of the diction and the ability to hold an audience with glittering eyes.  Words were printed in the programme – but they weren’t needed.  And the Festival Baroque Sinfonia’s crisply invigorating playing sent the blood coursing through the veins, especially when drums and trumpets were to the fore.

So that’s a taste of one day’s offerings.  What’s clear is that Southwell’s musical menu encourages feasting, not dieting.  There’s really no need to choose between concerts: just book for them all.


Jennifer Pike (violin) and James Baillieu (piano

Festival Baroque Sinfonia and Festival Voices conducted by Marcus Farnsworth

and many other soloists, choirs, instrumental ensembles and speakers in Southwell’s 6-day Festival

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