Southwell Music Festival
August 25 – 30 2021
The Minster and various venues in Southwell
Review: William Ruff
Attention to detail and a warm welcome remain the Festival’s hallmarks
The Southwell Music Festival does what it says on the tin – or rather the front cover of the glossy, fascinating and rather gorgeous 130-page brochure which acts as an essential companion for the week’s events. “Exquisite choral, chamber and orchestral music returns to the heart of Nottinghamshire” is what it says and Festival-goers aren’t going to disagree, except possibly by saying that song and organ recitals, opera and student masterclasses were also folded into the mix, along with special Festival services at the Minster.
This year was different from past Festivals, of course. Audiences and performers were socially-distanced amid much concern for the health and safety. However, hallmark ingredients were the same: attention to detail and the warmest of welcomes both to seasoned music-lovers and to youngsters experiencing their first live music. Some events were inevitably scaled-back this year with smaller choirs and orchestras faced with the same vast spaces of the Minster to be filled. Audience ears had to adapt and, even if some detail may have escaped some ears, the joy of experiencing live music in the Minster again more than compensated.
My sampling of events started on the opening night with the Opera Gala in which Festival Director (and baritone) Marcus Farnsworth joined with soprano Alison Rose, mezzo Jessica Gillingwater, tenor Andrew Tortise to present not only a selection of dazzling operatic favourites (such as ‘Je veux vivre’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette) but some more unsettling pieces as well, such as Billy Budd’s reflections on the eve of his hanging and the Earl of Essex’s ‘Happy were he’ (both from operas by Benjamin Britten). The range was wide and sometimes surprising: Rossini’s Figaro ran from the back of the Minster, bursting onto the stage to deliver one of the funniest job descriptions in musical history. There was passion from Donizetti, sentimentality from Puccini, the sublime ‘Suave sia il vento’ from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte and two particularly effective scenes from Verdi: Rodrigo’s moving death (from Don Carlos) and the very famous, very catchy drinking song from La Traviata. The four singers were well-matched, versatile, equally good at creating drama from a standing-start – and all ably partnered by their pianist Libby Burgess, a one-woman orchestra.
There were two fine performances of the same all-Bach programme on Saturday afternoon and evening. It’s just a pity that 12th century cathedrals don’t come equipped with the option to lower roofs and generally shrink the available space for music infused with so many subtle nuances. Bach’s 4th Brandenburg Concerto (played by Baroque Sinfonia) had much beautiful solo and ensemble playing, even though balance wasn’t in favour of the two recorder soloists. Marcus Farnsworth was the eloquent soloist in Ich habe genug, one of Bach’s most celebrated cantatas, with its poignant, plaintive oboe part and its deep spirituality, moving from serene contentedness with life through renunciation of the world to final joyful longing for the hereafter. The main work then followed: Bach’s magnificent Magnificat in which Baroque Voices joined the Sinfonia to provide both solos and choruses in this showcase of vocal virtuosity. Festive bursts of colour prevailed in an atmosphere of choral exuberance interspersed with deeply reflective solos (most memorably in the duo ‘Et Misericordia’). Both playing and singing were infused with rhythmic vitality and a strong sense of narrative drama.
And then on Sunday evening there was a song recital by renowned baritone Roderick Williams. You always get much more than the music with RW. He has a personality which more than fills the Minster and is a born communicator, able to take audiences into his confidence, giving them glimpses of the processes which inform the choice of programme and providing insights into how the songs work. He started with an unusually incisive account of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte in a new English translation, making the separation of two youthful lovers even more heartfelt than usual. There were intelligent renditions of Schubert, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Brahms too in the first half before a second half devoted to Shakespeare settings. John Joubert’s That Time of Year cleverly set four sonnets devoted to the four seasons – yet not everyone will have been convinced that the sonnets’ complexity needs (or can tolerate) an extra musical layer. Altogether more successful was the concluding Let Us Garlands Bring by Gerald Finzi, settings (appropriately) of songs from the plays. Roderick Williams sang them with joy in his voice and sparkle in his eyes. Throughout he was accompanied with probing intelligence by Susie Allan, playing on the Festival’s lovely Fazioli piano.
These are just three snapshots of a Festival whose glories were the subject of many an excited conversation overheard on the way to and from the Minster. For all the artists and organisers this year has been a triumph of musical determination, balancing the highest artistic standards with a thoughtful concern for the safety of performers and public. Let’s hope that any restraints can be cast off next year – so have the last week of August highlighted in your 2022 diaries.
Southwell Music Festival 2021
Founder and Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth
Artists featured in this review:
Alison Rose, soprano
Jessica Gillingwater, mezzo
Andrew Tortise, tenor
Marcus Farnsworth, baritone
Libby Burgess, piano
Johann Sebastian Bach
Marcus Farnsworth, conductor and baritone soloist
Roderick Williams, baritone
Susie Allan, piano