Cheltenham Music Festival: An Evening with Nicola Benedetti

Once upon a time, it bore the proud title Cheltenham Festival of British Contemporary Music; for the last 50 years, it’s simply been Cheltenham Music Festival. Even though it has to a large extent yielded to the essentially conservative musical taste that pervades this part of the Cotswolds (as a Cheltonian myself, I can say that without compunction), Cheltenham has evolved into a festival where music old and new sit side by side, with many concerts featuring at least one contemporary work. There have been times, over the years, when this ancient/modern adjacency has felt forced, even apologetic. However, last night’s event, in our rather grand Town Hall, was nothing of the kind.

Billed as ‘An Evening with Nicola Benedetti’, and featuring fellow violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, violist Benjamin Marquise-Gilmore, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk, the concert showcased two large-scale chamber works by Brahms and Shostakovich. Having spent a considerable amount of time recently in the company of predominately texture music, these pieces constituted a veritable explosion of line. Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 takes a serious, formal approach; as such, it flies but never soars, it’s light but hardly playful. Notwithstanding some satisfyingly convoluted structures and incongruous codas, the work sounds like a bird of prey tethered to its post. Passion, after all, is not discursive but demonstrative. Furthermore, Brahms’ relentless use of consonance makes the material feel not so much argued as lubricated, slip-siding with rather too much ease between episodes of decorous civility. Shostakovich’s music, by contrast, was the most transparent of the evening. Endowing it with such an emotional load is both Shostakovich’s greatest skill and his primary stumbling block, but in the Piano Quintet it is a triumph. To me, the famously expansive fourth movement feels like a red herring; it’s the fugue, with its oblique harmonic direction and strange palette, that occupies the most daringly intimate territory, and last night’s rendition—especially through its astonishing closing moments—was genuinely haunting. Benedetti’s pre-performance assessment of the work as one of the finest chamber works ever written is bang on the money.

Between these two pieces—in terms of mode of expression as well as concert order—came the UK première of Arlene Sierra‘s piano trio Butterflies Remember a Mountain. Commissioned by the Bremen Philharmonic Society, the work is another betraying Sierra’s fascination with the behaviours and mechanisms of biological lifeforms, from tiny creatures (Colmena; Birds and Insects) to humanity itself (Cicada Shell; Art of War). Obviously, it’s the former in focus here, inspired by a magazine article recounting a hypothesis that the flight path of monarch butterflies is determined by a latent memory of a long-since eroded mountain. The 12-minute work is a tripytch, each movement assigned a portion of the haiku-esque title—Butterflies; Remember; A Mountain—of which the outer movements are principally concerned with delicate ephemerality. The music is simple, gentle, operating in the first movement (which alludes to elements from Ravel’s Trio) with a quasi-modal tonality where minor and major coexist and overlap, manifesting in the form of flurries and crescendoing isolated pitches. This is ramped up in the third movement, with spritely arpeggioes and trills, and a more emphatic sense of circularity, the kind of disordered repetition that features regularly in Sierra’s work. Its trajectory is one of constant growth, trills becoming tremolandi (plus octave-unison melodic writing, serendipitously echoing the Brahms)—until it abruptly halts, pared back into a pianissimo conclusion. Brief but telling stuff, yet the central movement is altogether more so by at least an order of magnitude. Drawing on one of her own songs (‘Diving Girl’, from the Streets and Rivers cycle), Sierra establishes a dark, introspective environment that’s almost uncomfortably personal. While the piano offers tremulous flurried comments, violin and cello—practically reforged into a double-strength single entity—unravel convoluted strands of melody, intensely emotional, aching with wistfulness and the multitude of indescribable, unbidden feelings (re)kindled in all acts of remembrance. Dissipated in soft pizzicati that feel, if anything, even more intimate, it’s gone in mere minutes, but the depths Sierra taps into in this movement leave a profound impression that will last for days.

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