It isn’t often that a critic gets the chance to walk to a concert through fields of bleating sheep; and as someone more used to elbowing his way into London’s Festival Hall through semi-drunken office workers, people doing rap routines and skateboards firing like torpedoes through the trashy precincts of the Southbank Centre, I can’t tell you what a difference it makes.
So here’s to the Ryedale Festival, a summer fixture that brings serious music-making to parts of northern Yorkshire where the bleat of sheep is all you’d otherwise hear. And by “serious” I do mean serious. The concert I approached last week through the open fields of a stately pile called Duncombe Park featured not one, but two outstanding string quartets sharing a programme of Haydn and Bartók. And it was the best thing I’ve heard in months.
The theme this year at Ryedale was the debt the Western classical tradition owes to Eastern European folk material, especially gipsy/klezmer music from the eastern fringes of the Habsburg Empire. It opened with a robust cabaret group called ZRI (which stands for Zum Roten Igel, the Red Hedgehog Tavern in Vienna where Brahms went to indulge his love of gipsy sound), vamping their way through Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet “reimagined” for a klezmer-style ensemble with accordion and cimbalom.
And the festival opera – done as usual in the theatre of the Benedictine boarding school, Ampleforth – was Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow: the ne plus ultra of Austro-Hungarian froth, done here simply but effectively with a small orchestra encouraged to punch above its weight by conductor Kerem Hasan, and with the decidedly classy soprano Ilona Domnich taking the title role in her stride.
But Ryedale’s hottest ticket was a sequence of concerts that paired two sets of string quartets written a century apart: the half-dozen that comprise Haydn’s Opus 76, and the half-dozen that are everything Bartók wrote for strings. The Haydns were played by the Doric Quartet. The Bartóks were played by the Heath Quartet. It was fascinating to hear two ensembles of this quality playing back-to-back in the same programme – the Doric a sartorially and sonically smart group, combining attitude and elegance; the Heath more physical and visceral.
The physicality of the Heath Quartet, playing Bartók, won me over. Bartók’s quartets are tough listening and tough playing that demand a miner’s skill: you have to excavate their substance. And the mining of the Heath, here, penetrated to the deepest levels, unforgettably.
Two years ago the Ryedale Festival lost all its public funding. Someone in Arts Council England thought it didn’t have enough to offer. A profound misjudgment.
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