Southwell Music Festival 2022
Southwell Minster and other venues
August 24-29 2022
Review: William Ruff
Southwell: a music festival that explores and inspires
The annual Southwell Music Festival is much more than a general celebration of classical music. It has an identity all of its own, offering the music lover experiences which are simply unavailable at any other time and in any other place. For the last week of August a large part of the town is turned into a musical instrument which resounds with talent, imagination and an almost palpable sense of commitment. And in the midst of all this creative energy stands the Minster like the grandest of concert soloists, its stone glowing in the late summer sun, offering not only magnificent backdrops for showpiece events but also the hushed intimacy of inner spaces for smaller-scale, more introspective music-making.
With nearly forty events on this year’s programme it’s only possible to give a taste here of its richness and variety. You could take any event and claim that it sums up the Festival’s spirit. However, it would be hard to think of one which ticked so many boxes in so many imaginative ways than the celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the great English composer born 150 years ago this year. This wasn’t a programme of obvious favourites like The Lark Ascending; instead, the chosen works were so subtle and introspective that the choice of performing space was key. The decision to use the Quire was inspired, its visual beauty complementing the music and its seating, at right angles to the performers, helping to enhance the idea that listeners were at one with musicians.
The choice of programme would have taken even the most seasoned RVW enthusiasts by surprise. In fact, it started with a very early student work, his Quintet for the unusual combination of clarinet, horn, violin, cello and piano. It doesn’t sound anything like the mature composer (and must be an extreme rarity in the concert hall) so it was a fascinating start to the evening. More surprises following, including poems by Ursula, RVW’s second wife, beautifully read by Anna Dennis whose singing was such a delight in three pieces in which she was accompanied by a single instrument.
This programme ended with On Wenlock Edge, a song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet. Mark Le Brocq was the soloist, ideally suited to a work which sets A.E Housman’s poems about love and death in the context of a rural world now lost forever. The opening of this Festival performance showed just how attentive to detail the whole cycle was: the clarity and incisiveness of Mark Le Brocq’s vocal line contrasting vividly with the wild and violent gestures flung between the accompanying instruments. The ending was equally memorable: in a work which tugs at the heartstrings for its reminder that youth and beauty will inevitably fade and die, it was a particularly poignant decision for the tenor to leave the stage and sing the last few notes from afar, invisible to the audience.
At the other extreme, as far as scale is concerned, there was Mendelssohn’s St Paul, the big Saturday night event and the story of Paul’s journey from persecutor of Christians to persecuted Christian himself. Conductor (and Festival Director) Marcus Farnsworth has a special talent for musical narratives. His direction of the Festival Voices and Sinfonia was all about pace and ensuring that the flow of energy was always appropriate for the context. And this was as true of the final bars as it was about the Overture. The performance made the work’s structure dazzlingly clear: two parts with each divided into three. Part 1 was full of high drama: the martyrdom of Stephen (plenty of operatic intensity and spectacle here) followed by Saul on the road to Damascus, the restoration of his sight and his subsequent baptism. The narrative thrust was achieved through vivid projection of words and the sheer power with which the story was punched home. The Festival Voices number a mere 25 – but they produce more volume than some choirs ten times bigger.
Once again Anna Dennis and Mark Le Brocq achieved wonders as soloists and they were joined by baritone Neal Davies. Neal made a particularly forceful impact as pre-conversion Saul of Tarsus, the zealous persecutor of Christians. His ‘rage’ aria ‘Consume them all, Lord Sabaoth’ packed a powerful punch as did the emotional and spiritual high point of the oratorio, Saul’s blinding revelation, as Mark Le Brocq introduced an extraordinary sequence which includes (surprisingly) a female chorus delivering Christ’s words of rebuke.
The orchestra rose to the extraordinary challenge too. Softly and sensitively repeated chords in the brass and high winds produced a strikingly ethereal, otherworldly effect as the divine message descended from on high. In fact, the whole performance was marked by this sort of attention to detail. Soloists, choir, orchestra, Libby Burgess (the choir trainer) and Marcus Farnsworth all received thunderous applause at the end from an audience who had clearly been moved by and emotionally captivated by the performance.
Part of the Festival’s aim is to give their audiences the chance to explore music which lies outside their comfort zone. On the opening day the Festival Voices and Strings nailed their colours to the mast by performing James Macmillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, a work of penetrating spiritual power, a deeply Catholic piece which can nevertheless speak to those who hold very different faiths – or indeed none at all. It is difficult music, both to perform and to listen to. Its musical language is often intensely beautiful but sometimes uncompromisingly stark, even brutal. It takes its listeners to extremes: from startlingly eloquent silences to graphically realistic sonic depictions of hammer blows driving home the nails.
It concluded another concert whose shape and content were clearly the result of much thought. It was a brilliant (even if slightly risky) idea to place the Macmillan piece at the end of an equally (but very differently) moving sequence of chants by the medieval composer Abbess Hildegard of Bingen interspersed by music for solo violin (played with the utmost sensitivity by Jamie Campbell) and strings by Latvian Peteris Vasks and Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov. Concert etiquette of course meant applause at the end of the evening – although I suspect most in the audience would have preferred to show their appreciation by maintaining long and perfect silence.
My final visit to the Festival was to hear the pianist Martin Roscoe, an artist whose searching musical intelligence is offset by an easy rapport with audiences. And on Sunday he managed to defy the soaring vaults, creating an atmosphere of hushed intimacy around him. A renowned Beethoven interpreter, he gave finely detailed, transparently textured performances of two sonatas, framing his recital with the early Pathétique sonata and the late Op. 110. In between came a sequence of eight pieces as illuminating as it was unexpected, featuring music by three women composers, pairing them with linked male counterparts: Clara and Robert Schumann; Amy Beach and her fellow American Edward MacDowell; the French composers Cecile Chaminade and Claude Debussy. It was an unusually satisfying experience.
To these selected events can be added so many more successes in a week which encompassed showcases for young artists, solo recitals, talks, community singing, jazz, folk, chamber music, special Minster services and events which have entranced young children. If you missed this year’s Festival, the good news is that it will be back next year. And it remains a powerfully compelling reason why music-lovers in Southwell (and much further afield) should highlight late-August Festival week on their calendars before planning the rest of their year.
Southwell Festival 2022
Celebrity recital: Martin Roscoe, piano
Mendelssohn’s St Paul: Anna Dennis (soprano), Mark Le Brocq (tenor), Neal Davies (baritone), Festival Voices, Festival Sinfonia, Marcus Farnsworth (conductor)
Ralph Vaughan Williams 150: Anna Dennis (soprano), Mark Le Brocq (tenor), Jamie Campbell (violin), Florence Cooke (violin), Alessandro Ruisi (violin), Elvira van Gronigen (violin), Edgar Francis (viola), Nathaniel Boyd (cello), Alexander Holladay (cello), Ewan Millar (oboe), Peter Sparks (clarinet), Anna Douglass (horn), James Baillieu (piano), Paul Provost (piano)
A Prayer for Peace. Seven Last Words from the Cross (James Macmillan): Festival Voices, Festival Strings, Marcus Farnsworth (conductor), Jamie Campbell (violin)