Southwell Festival Sinfonia
August 21 2019
Review: William Ruff
The Southwell Festival: close attention to the tiniest details produces thrilling results
If you type ‘music’ into your satnav this week, there’s really only one place your car can take you: Southwell. The Festival is back after a long year of high expectations and the first night concert had sackfuls of the ingredients audiences have come to expect: the highest standards of performance mixed with meticulous attention to detail both onstage and off.
As the Dean said in her welcome, this year’s theme of ‘Crossing Continents and Blurring Boundaries’ is both poignant and pertinent. So two musical journeys made for an exhilarating start to the six days of music-making. Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, is surely the perfect festive curtain-raiser, having one of the happiest openings of any symphony. The fluttering flutes and exuberant first theme suggest the sort of pulse-quickening that occurs when bedroom shutters are flung open to reveal a glorious sunlit landscape.
To release the music’s high-octane energy a conductor has to be a good judge of speed as too fast robs the rhythm of its buoyancy. Festival Director Marcus Farnsworth got it just right, allowing the music to breathe and reveal inner detail.
And, as so often at Festival events, it was a joy not only to hear the highly refined playing of the mostly young players but also to see their absorption in the musical story-telling and their rapport with both the conductor and each other.
In Mahler’s 4th Symphony which followed Marcus Farnsworth conducted not so much with a baton as a paintbrush. Mahler uses his large orchestra not primarily for massive effects but as a giant palette of minutely judged colours. And it matters how these are applied to the canvas.
Again it was the handling of the opening which typified the whole – and again the chosen tempo was crucial as the woodwind and sleigh bells set off at a slow jog-trot. The rising violin phrase was so, so languid and then there was exactly the right degree of yearning in the cellos’ lovely second theme. Throughout the performance details were precisely placed within Mahler’s musical landscape and along the journey there were so many instances of chamber-like intimacy, carefully controlled textures, beautifully moulded solos and razor-sharp ensemble.
In the symphony’s finale Mahler creates a child’s vision of Paradise through the medium of song. Alison Rose was the soprano soloist whose purity of voice and bright-eyed rapport with the audience fulfilled the composer’s ‘happy, childlike’ instructions without ever spilling over into sentimentality. Every tiny detail was given its full weight – right up to the magical ending, the music gradually fading until nothing is left except for the soft, low repeated tolling of the harp.
Southwell Festival Sinfonia conducted by Marcus Farnsworth, with Alison Rose (soprano) on the first day of the 2019 Southwell Festival