There are, I suppose, more spiritual ways to spend a Sunday morning than strolling through the urban civility of Cheltenham’s Pittville Park en route to a Cheltenham Festival recital in the Pump Room. But for sheer pleasure it takes
some beating. And when the performer is Benjamin Grosvenor in his comfort zone, playing Ravel and Bach with consummate artistry, razor-like focus and a depth of insight barely believable in a pianist of just 26, you know you’re getting something special. As Grosvenor is, on all counts.
At the forefront of his generation worldwide, he delivers with an unassuming, unforced eloquence. And Sunday morning or no, his programme didn’t shy away from challenge, with a set of pieces written by the Australian composer Brett Dean to be inserted between Brahms’s Op 119 intermezzi as a Hommage (the title of the set) and commentary. It called for, and rewarded, careful listening.
The big new work at Cheltenham that weekend, though, was Richard Blackford’s Kalon, a festival commission that enlarged and enriched the great English tradition of writing for strings. In three substantial movements that explored the idea of beauty (Kalon in Greek) surviving against darkness, it pitched a large string orchestra (here the BBC Welsh) against a string quartet playing at simultaneously different speeds. It could have been a mess but Blackford is formidably accomplished technically, and an experienced communicator whose career has to a large extent been in the film and TV world. He knew what he was doing, and he pulled it off with not just brilliance but also emotional appeal. A fine score, due for broadcast on Radio 3.
Meanwhile, Garsington has scored a qualified success with a new opera, David Sawer’s The Skating Rink. A murder-mystery told three times over from three separate points of view, it’s fascinating as a structure and resourceful in its orchestration – although, like a lot of modern opera, not so purposefully written for the voices that you never question why they’re singing as opposed to speaking.
The design is scruffy, as is a production that ignores the magical potential in a narrative about a secret skating rink inside a crumbling mansion. But we did get actual skating, with the use of blades that somehow didn’t need an ice floor. And the singers (who did not skate: they had doubles) all presented sharply memorable characters – especially Ben Edquist, who negotiates a curious gear-shift in the closing scene when Sawer’s music suddenly takes wing and turns into a luscious love-letter to Benjamin Britten. For those last 10 minutes you forgive whatever bothered you about the previous hundred.
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