Monday 19 October 2020

PETWORTH FESTIVAL 2020 / Concert Reviews I



This year has been a total washout for my insatiable appetite of attending concerts and music festivals. What the global Covid-19 pandemic has done to live music-making and the concert-going experience is unprecedented. In short, it has been shattering. Not being able to attend the Hong Kong Arts Festival (cancelled), the Singapore International Piano Festival (axed), the Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum Festival (postponed) and The Joy of Music Festival in Hong Kong (still taking place but travel restricted) has been a major downer for me, and would have been a source of depression.


However, the one bright light that proudly shines is England’s Petworth Festival, held in a West Sussex town which has a history that goes back to medieval times. Home to the 17th century National Trust Petworth House, there are neither tall buildings, railway station nor Macdonald’s on its cobbled streets. But its summer music and autumn literary festivals have hosted some of the land’s top artists and writers. Due to the year’s circumstances, both festivals have now been combined as an autumn special, to form one exceptional fortnight of live and streamed events.


My two day whistle-stop visit to Petworth in the summer of 2018 was a revelation, and I wished I could have come back and stayed longer. This has not happened – yet - but being able to witness the performances, on my handy laptop and through headphones is nonetheless a much-welcome relief from the tedium and humdrum of a Covid lockdown.


Friday 16 October 2020 


London Mozart Players Ensemble


The festival opened with a Haydn symphony, well sort of. In this period of social distancing, big orchestra performances have been ruled out, but in comes the idea that “small is good”. Thus what we got was impresario extraordinaire Johann Peter Salomon’s arrangement of Haydn’s Symphony No.94 in G major (better known by its nickname, the Surprise Symphony) for string quartet, flute, double bass and piano (serving as a sort of continuo). It is a septet, but good music remains, performed with the care and love one might expect in intimate chamber music.

Petworth Festival Director Stewart Collins
addresses the audience in St Mary's


Opening with a slow introduction, the 1st movement soon took off in the high spirits and wit that comes with the territory. The balance between the strings and piano chords was excellent, with the flute adding an extra line of timbre and texture. The main surprise here was the second movement’s theme and variations (remember that big abrupt tutti chord which gave the symphony its nickname?) being omitted.


The great British pianist Howard Shelley* then gave a scholarly but highly accessible preamble on Beethoven’s early style with relation to Mozart’s late piano concertos, and also played examples which helped in the appreciation of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Accompanied by just a string quintet, one need not have worried about missing the full orchestra. The piano rumbled in its series of ascending scales without apology, and never looked back. Here was a performance that lacked nothing in brio and vigour, with Shelley in scintillating form leading from the keyboard.


The usual big cadenza by Beethoven was played, and even this sounded perfectly appropriate. The slow movement’s opening chorale for piano solo was an epitome of purity, from which a glorious lyricism unfolded. The Rondo finale turned from drama to sheer joy, but not before some tense moments which Beethoven put his listeners through. Overall, this work - and performance -  represented a triumph of the spirit. The audience in St Mary’s were served up a real treat. Whoever thought a live Beethoven piano concerto be heard with such vivacity and vividness in the midst of a global pandemic?


* The discophile world will forever be in his debt for his indefatigable work in Hyperion’s Romantic and Classical Piano Concerto series and championship of British piano music.



Saturday 17 October 2020





Billed as the highlight of the festival, the duo recital by two members of Britain’s first family of music was every bit as as good as their programme suggested, if not better. Cellist Sheku, winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, and his older sister pianist Isata opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Cello Sonata in C major (Op.102 No.1). One would feel their chemistry from the outset, with the cello voicing the first notes and the piano joining in for the 1st movement’s slow introduction. Here were both instruments presented as first among equals, a status not previously recognised before Beethoven, and how. Sheku’s robust tone yet sensitive voice was well matched by Isata’s sure-fingered pianism through the sonata’s two movements.


The slow-fast-slow-fast form here is reminiscent of the sonata da chiesa of old, and made for splendid contrasts. Does anyone other than myself feel that a motif in the fast section of the 1st movement sound like The Stars and Stripes Forever? Maybe John Philip Sousa was influenced by Beethoven? Whatever that maybe, there were lots to enjoy in the 2nd movement’s interplay and counterpoint, which made this a fun outing.    


Frank Bridge may be regarded as a 20th century composer (besides being the most important teacher of Benjamin Britten), but his Melodie remains firmly entrenched in the Romantic era. Its brief three-and-a-half minutes cast a sumptuously lyrical spell, beautifully voiced and served as the prelude to the concert’s main event, Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor (Op.19). Here the sibs unleashed a no holds barred performance that simmered, sizzled and then erupted into glorious life.

Ecstacy is written
all over Sheku's face!


It was easy for the piano with its multitudes of notes to overwhelm the cello, but that never happened. Isata’s sensitive musicianship and Sheku’s passion made sure of that. While the opening movement and ensuing scherzo flexed muscle and sinew, it was the gorgeous slow movement that revealed the Russian composer’s psyché heart-on-sleeve. The duo milked it for what it was worth, and the result was heartrending to say the least. The finale’s tarantella-like dance followed off where the initial fast movements left which made for a breathlessly exciting finish, greeted by the loudest of cheers.  


On the strength of this hour-long recital, I dare say the Kanneh-Masons, Sheku and Isata, have what it takes to become Britain’s finest sibling duo since Yehudi and Hephzibah – and yes, I mean the Menuhins.  

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