fri 19/07/2024

theartsdesk at the Music@Malling Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Music@Malling Festival

theartsdesk at the Music@Malling Festival

Bach, Sibelius and child-friendly concerts beneath the Pilgrims' Way

'Yggdrasil': Matthew Sharp gets audience participation in West MallingShani Hancock

One of the summer’s greatest pleasures has been to confirm an often untested truism: that you may hear some of the finest and rarest music-making in out-of-the-way places.

Just take a local who’s made the grade – in this instance, violinist and conductor Thomas Kemp – and who can gather friends and colleagues of equal calibre around him, harness the most atmospheric and/or unusual local venues, here spread around beautiful Kent country in the vicinity of heavily wooded North Downs and the Pilgrims’ Way, and you have a top-notch festival. Whether its reputation and its financing can make a wider splash is then a matter of chance as well as hard work.

Music@Malling has certainly put down roots in its fifth year, with the unspoilt "village that thinks it's a town" West Malling as the nerve-centre. Events earlier last week included jazz evenings in which the James Pearson Trio and Claire Martin had played to full houses, and the results of commissioning composer David Horne to write a work based on fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Those involved around 1500 schoolchildren in two different churches, choreography featuring two dancers from  English National Ballet and Kemp’s well-established small orchestra Chambre Domaine. I did catch the knock-on effect as families flocked to the final concert loosely woven around “Nordic Myths and Legends” with far from merely entertaining pieces including Sibelius’s chamber melodrama version of a masterpiece, The Wood Nymph.

Birlng ChurchSibelius and Nielsen were impressively threaded with Bach in the three concerts I attended on Saturday. The aim was to walk between Addington, where the church in true Kent style is some way from the village green on a pretty rise, Birling with its connections to the Nevill family (pictured right) and Trottiscliffe (pronounced “Trosley”), the loveliest of them all just under the Downs where the church feels very much like the end of the road, with prehistoric stones a short walk away.

The morning light flooding in through the east window of St Margaret’s Addington found its lucid complement in harpsichordist Steven Devine’s performance of Bach’s Italian Concerto. More pronounced chromatic quirks were evident in the C minor Fantasia, BWV906, which had to stand as the core of the programme in the absence of a piece I’d been keenly anticipating from Kemp, Nielsen’s Prelude and Theme with Variations. Why had it vanished? We weren’t told.

Sibelius early pieceWhat we did get was a charming spiel about a local connection to Sibelius: Kemp’s inspirational first teacher had in her youth (presumably the early 1950s) written to ask Sibelius if he would compose a piece for her, her sister and orchestra. The reply was typically laconic but kind: “I should love to write a double concerto for you, but unfortunately I no longer compose”. What we had here was a tuneful, danceable boyhood sketch taken from a manuscript Kemp had unearthed in the Helsinki National Library (pictured above; Sibelius was a proficient violinist and wrote for the instrument at all periods of his life). It was interesting to then hear Kemp apply romantic vibrato to Bach’s Violin Sonata in G, BWV 1021, not at all in conflict with Devine’s meaty harpsichord sound (his instrument, he told us, was a 2000 copy of a 1710 Fleischer instrument, German-manufactured to give a more percussive, less floral sound than any of its French counterparts.

Vibrato was off the menu two and a half hours later when the excellent Sacconi Quartet in All Saints’ Birling played the chorale conclusion to Bach’s The Art of Fugue as a thoughtful preface to a Sibelius masterpiece, the Voces Intimae Quartet. The loneliness of much of its writing was offset by passionate vibrato reapplied, but never too much so, especially by first violinist Ben Hancox. He took the climax of the entire work, towards the end of the deeply-felt Adagio di molto, very much the emotional centre of the five-movement work, to overwhelming heights. These are (mostly) young musicians with the right wisdom to rise to some extraordinary challenges.

Walking obstacles on the "Bach pilgrimage" meant we only arrived at Birling at the last minute. A crucial subway under the disruptive M26 which separates two of our three churches from the third was flooded. It was no pleasure ploddng along the motorway trying to find a way up or across, eventually climbing over a barbed-wire fence into a field of horses and their tolerant owners who set us back on course.

Trottiscliffe ChurchThe bonus was to see the fourth of the “Pilgrims’ Way” churches, or at least the outside of St Martin’s Ryarsh, dramatically separated from its village by the motorway and in very poetic seclusion.  Much the finest stretch of walking would have been up on to the North Downs ridge to our last destination of the day, Trottiscliffe, but 45 minutes between concerts 2 and 3, so steps need to be traced on a future visit (no problem, as West Malling is only an hour’s train journey from Victoria).

At least there was time to take in the glorious surroundings of St Peter and St Paul’s Trottiscliffe (pictured above right), a small and complete Norman church which was a travellers’ resting place on descending from the Pilgrims’ Way. Its gem is a disproportionate but wonderfully eccentric 1775 pulpit originally designed by Henry Keene for Westminster Abbey, a wooden palm tree supporting the sounding board just below the church roof. Here the music, too, was of the essence: consummate Finnish flautist Sami Junnonen, a major player during the festval’s earlier events, in Bach’s A major Partita, Debussy’s Syrinx and his own, staggering arrangement of the greate Ciaccona from the D minor Partita, all the violin’s passing notes sounding rich and rare on the golden flute.

Richard Harwood playing to the nuns of West Malling AbbeyThe more I found out about the very unusual venues of West Malling, the more I wished I’d been there during the week, not least to share the experience of Richard Harwood’s three Bach Cello Suites programmes in the otherwise impenetrable chapel of St Mary’s Abbey with the closed order of nuns (pictured by David Horne. The chapel was built in the 1960s; the rest of the buildings in the generous grounds range from Norman ruins to the 18th century house of ruin-lover Frazer Honeywood). Pianist Sophia Rahman, a much admired acquaintance from the Pärnu Festival, told me the nuns had also used a secret route to attend the Friday lunchtime concert of Debussy and Ravel in which she’d participated in the medieval barn now owned by the Pilsdon Community, a valuable rehabilitation centre which is only one of several important retreats in the area.

It was certainly worth travelling back down to West Malling on Sunday afternoon for the final “Family Concert”. I don’t suppose many folk can boast of having heard two performances of Sibelius’s melodrama-version Wood Nymph in a year. I’d caught it first in Bergen, in an unrepeatable programme including even rarer Sibelius melodramas masterminded by Leif Ove Andsnes. This one made even more sense to me, at any rate, since the narration was in English, not Swedish, and vigorously delivered by actor, cellist and baritone Matthew Sharp. He definitely achieved a first by holding his hitherto delightfully obstreperous son in his arms as he delivered.

Final concert of the Music@Malling FestivalIt’s a rather haunting cautionary tale as far as kids are concerned: “the heart that’s stolen by a wood nymph is never returned”. The love music, gleamingly done, hovers adultly between Tristan und Isolde and the hypnotic spell of runic chant. But there was fun, too, in the loose narrative tissue cueing lively pieces for strings by Grieg (the opening movement of the Holberg Suite) and Sibelius (most consummately played the Valse Triste minus flute). Rahman also shone in a big, bold performance of Grieg’s “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” from the Lyric Pieces. Sharp gave us rough outlines of creation and evolution myths, winning participation at the start by getting us to respond to the word “Ragnarok” by waving our arms in the air and shouting “Yggdrasil”.

The children (some of them at the end pictured above by Shani Hancock) seemed to like it. Once Sharp's dialogue ceased after the interval and it became apparent that we weren't going to hear another melodrama rarity I would have travelled a long way to catch, Grieg’s The Mountain Thrall, youthful engagement had to find another outlet during the weird magic of Sibelius’s Rakastava (The Lover, a first in concert for me) and very late, light Suite for Violin and Orchestra. So the kids were invited to sit within the orchestra, which they seemed very happy to do. The strings resonated beautifully in the acoustic – a wooden floor in a church makes all the difference – and a sizeable audience went home happy. Next year, you should make a least a day of it down there; there aren’t many things more pleasurable than quality music-making complemented by fine churches and perfect early autumn weather in the country.

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