If you’re a grand Anglo-Italian family who own a castle on a hill in Tuscany, the thing to do is run a summer music festival. Ideally like the one on an estate, La Foce, where the writer Iris Origo chronicled her wartime experiences in the 1940s, and where the Incontri in Terra di Siena now take place.
Organised by Origo’s descendents, under the stars in baroque courtyards, scented gardens and other enchanted locations as the cicadas chirp and the mosquitos (more than usually macho this year) bite, it’s a true Chiantishire event in that its culture mixes English and American with true Italian. And the big event this year was a performance by the Italian-born, American-resident, English competition-winning pianist Alessio Bax, playing Beethoven with the Southbank Sinfonia.
Now in his late 30s, Bax is one of the outstanding pianists of his generation: a musician of immaculate style, sensibility and grace, but driven by an iron technique and sense of purpose. He means business when he plays. And his performance of the Emperor Concerto was so effortlessly powerful that it eclipsed the orchestra, which played acceptably but couldn’t meet a soloist of such calibre on equal terms.
Another pianist, Saleem Ashkar, now a Decca artist, was the draw the night before – playing with youngsters from Polyphony, a conservatoire in Nazareth for musically advanced Israeli Jews and Arabs to develop side by side. A thing that wouldn’t happen otherwise under the current regime.
Ashkar is an Israeli Arab himself. His pianism is too angular for my ears, but it comes with an arresting clarity, transparency and vigour. And Polyphony is clearly a good cause that merits international support. It has no visibility in Britain as yet, but time will change that.
Back in the UK, the Proms have been providing some bizarrely mismatched programmes – an extreme example being the final scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre paired with Michael Tippett’s Child of Our Time. But that same oddity turned out to be one of the best concerts of the season, courtesy of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under conductor Mark Wigglesworth.
A few nights later the BBC NOW were back in equally good form for the premiere of a new violin concerto by Michael Berkeley. Written in memory of Berkeley’s late wife, the concerto had a haunting, cinematic lyricism, and the novelty of teaming up the soloist (Chloë Hanslip) with an Indian tabla player who exoticised the soundscape with percussive raga riffs. It made a seriously seductive piece – apart from its requirement for the soloist to swap, at one point, her acoustic instrument for an electric one and make a noise like a police car on a motorway.