tue 28/05/2024

theartsdesk at the Two Moors Festival - birdsong, gongs and nocturnes in Dartmoor churches | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Two Moors Festival - birdsong, gongs and nocturnes in Dartmoor churches

theartsdesk at the Two Moors Festival - birdsong, gongs and nocturnes in Dartmoor churches

In tune with the natural wonders of Devon's high places, musicians excel

Seven musicians, four seasons in Ashburton, DevonAll concert images by Clive Barda

First came the difficult decision: whether to experience performances by great musicians whose work I already knew in the second, Exmoor-based weekend of the Two Moors Festival, or to go for enticing programmes by others whom I’d never experienced live around Dartmoor.

What was for me the more adventurous choice paid off: I heard six unforgettable concerts in four memorable Devon churches, as well as two inspiring talks on the wildlife of this tor-capped upland, and fell in love with a territory only fitfully encountered in childhood.

Three cheers for the festival’s artistic director, top violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. In all the best festivals, the most communicative musicians always find each other, and the connections forged here in terms not only of people but also of programming went well beyond the exploration of nature implied in the banner “Arcadia Unlocked”; the fluidity of subterranean links between each concert had the kind of clairvoyant skill previously to be sensed in Svend Brown’s East Neuk Festival. Widecombe-in-the-MoorArcadia was indeed unlocked at the very first concert on Friday afternoon; a maze of lanes with the sun shining through overhanging trees led us to the most isolated of Dartmoor villages – if one of the most visited in summer – Widecombe-in-the-Moor, with its unnaturally high tower (pride of the tin miners, apparently) also golden in the late afternoon light. Even on the following day, mostly of heavy rain, it still looked wonderful from the neighbouring height (pictured above).

Part of the magic was feeling out of the busy world, after the previous night’s Royal Festival Hall concert of 134 Philharmonia players, in the company of two consummate musicians who drew you into their conversations – soprano Ruby Hughes and theorbist Sergio Bucheli (pictured below) There was an instrumental intimacy on the cusp of silence which I’ve only previously experienced from the middle eastern oud, while Hughes inflected Robert Johnson’s setting of Fletcher’s “Care charming sleep” with perfect tone colours on the words “sweetly thyself dispose” and “silver rain”. Ruby Huges and Sergio Bucheli in Widecombe-in-the-MoorOf the Dowland selection, punctuated by folk-based theorbo solos, “Go crystal tears” was perfection. And the surprise coda, Errollyn Wallen’s “Peace on Earth”, hypnotised in its simple originality and dying falls: a miniature masterpiece looking ahead to Christmas. Spoken introductions and a neat account of the theorbo’s history enriched the occasion – such talks were features of all bar one of the concerts to follow, so credit to Waley-Cohen for encouraging them – and the acoustics of cosy St Pancras proved warm but never over-resonant.

It must have been the venue and maybe the platform below her which made Cordelia Williams (pictured below) change her mind about the Steinway on loan from the Dorset Music Society, which she hadn’t enjoyed playing in a previous recital. This, she said afterwards, felt completely different. Her late-evening concert took us from moonlight in Scriabin’s Second Piano Sonata, its first-movement silences magically integrated, through a twofold meditation through the hour of the wolf to Schumann’s Songs of Dawn and the pearly morning light and at-one-with-the-worldness of Schubert’s happiest sonata, the A major D664. Cordelia Williams in Widecombe-in-the-MoorThe linked reflection for the hours before the dawn was the most surprising: Williams said she felt a deep affinity between Thomas Tomkins’ A Sad Pavan for these Destructive Times and Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, seeming improvisations upon a gentle ostinato bass. For me, the revelation was the Schumann, so surprising in its modulations and subtle shifts of mood. Williams’ unshakeable evenness is a wonder, though I’ve heard more giving, ethereal approaches to the lovely melody that begins the Schubert Sonata.

The birds of Dartmoor were very much up with the dawn of a rainy Sunday, restored to life after their late summer moulting, and a blackbird alarmed outside the Widecombe Church House where local artist and naturalist Tony Whitehead gave us a personable and succinct talk about avian song. I knew the why but not the how: did you know that the two tubes of the sound-box or syrinx allows the bird to make two sounds at once? I hadn’t thought about it or noticed it, but listening to the recordings I could hear the double effect – not exactly harmony – for the first time. George Xiaoyuan Fu in WidecombeIt certainly gave a kick to Messiaen’s steroidal fleshing out of single songs. And what a masterstroke from pianist George Xiaoyuan Fu (pictured above) to place three substantial tableaux from Catalogue d’Oiseaux between other bird-inspired pieces: the little mystery of Schumann’s "Bird as Prophet", Ravel’s "Oiseaux tristes" and the world premiere of three of Fu’s own startling paraphrases from Respighi’s The Birds, Messiaenizing Respighisation of Rameau, Pasquini and Gallot. This artist is a deep thinker, thoroughly in command of dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo, and fearless in negotiating Messiaen’s more massive demands, the rock-faces between the poetic glidings, swoops and dives of birds of the French mountains, countryside and coastline. Another of Fu’s own transcriptions, a very forthright, scintillating treatment of Bach’s Gavotte en rondeau from the Third Partita for Violin, took us towards noon. But it’s clear from his Messiaen that Fu must emulate his mentor Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Aldeburgh day of Catalogue d’Oiseaux, from dawn to midnight, in this venue and with Whitehead leading a dawn chorus walk before the first recital as well as taks about Messiaen's featured birds (he knows the music). Next May or the following one, please.

So to lunch at the first-rate Three Crowns in prosperous Chagford, and a concert in St Michael the Archangel, like all the other venues built of local stone, wagon-roofed, with startling medieval roof bosses sacred and profane, and handsomely screened before the chancel, though in this case a restoration had been responsible for the handsome work of the main screen if not the parcloses. Amarins Wierdsma, leader of the young Barbican String Quartet (pictured below), showed poetic imagination in the “sunrise” of Haydn’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 76 No. 4, while maturity combined with wit in the lead back from the drone-bass trio of the Minuet. The Barbican Quartet in ChagfordSchubert’s last quartet, the G major, D887, sounded fiercer than I’ve ever heard it, a painful battle with death, perhaps this composer’s most consistently anguished, with intense tremolos and searing, startlingly modern questions asked in the stormy episode of the Andante un poco moto. Schubert’s unique conflicts of major and minor have never sounded more extraordinary.

The Barbicans, if one may so call them, joined Waley-Cohen (pictured below), double-bass player Thea Sayer and harpsichordist Nathaniel Mander, for a Vivaldi Four Seasons in St Andrew’s Church, Ashburton – another one with a high tower (“inspiring,” declares Brian Watson in the Shell Guide to Devon). I hadn’t heard a live performance of this Classic FM favourite since a similar chamber version from the Razumovsky Ensemble led by Alexander Sitkovetsky back in 2009; now, as then, it struck me with its full vitality and range, not at all Des O’Connorish as Nigel Kennedy described it in a recent contretemps. Tamsin Waley-CohenWaley-Cohen’s fierce fiddling was simply phenomenal, and all the more so following on the heels of the Bach Second Partita, an interpretation which gathered depth and interiority as it moved towards the great Chaconne. The introspective and the extrovert were brilliantly paired in a single event ecstatically received by the packed (but, alas, mostly maskless) audience. I’d have loved to stay and hear jazz singer Nishla Smith and pianist Tom Harris in the Ashburton Arts Centre, but we had a long drive back to our inn on the other side of Dartmoor.

Sunday dawned bright and clear, good enough for a hike along the river Taw, Tarka the Otter territory, up to the high village of Belstone and back, though torrential rain soon set in. It was a day of rainbows and dramatic skyscapes. That was somehow complemented by the afternoon recital in St John the Baptist Hatherleigh by percussionist Joby Burgess (pictured below). Five strikingly different works, starting with the sheer poetry of Takemitsu’s Seasons, the Canna Sonora or Aluminium Harp at its core. Burgess, in his immensely likeable presentation, homaged the original interpreter, the phenomenal Stomu Yamash’tu, and praised the composers with whom he’d collaborated on the next three pieces. Joby Burgess in HatherleighI loved the changes rung on the vibraphone and its loopings by Rebecca Dale in Can’t Sleep – a very different small-hours experience to the one Cordelia Williams had presented – and the fabulous theatre of riffs on a soda bottle, West African style, in Gabriel Prokofiev’s fabulous Fanta (the children in the audience were spellbound). Linda Buckley’s Ekstosis was new-age/minimal, but good for contrast, and the finale was the one we really should have been given earplugs for, John Luther Adams’ bass-drum solo evoking shamanic ritual in the Alaskan wilderness where he lived for decades, Qilyuan. Fingers half in ears didn’t preclude stunned appreciation of Talbot’s virtuosity across this quarter-hour stunner. As I left for the journey back to Exeter Station, balm wafted out from the school house where Stile Antico were rehearsing for the evening concert. A shame to miss that, but I’d had my visions. And now a longer immersion in Dartmoor nature beckons, thanks especially to the inspirations of Whitehead and fellow naturalist John Walters, who showed us wonders on film in Hatherleigh, in the shape of long walks from inn to inn.

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