fri 14/06/2024

Anthony Marwood and Friends, Peasmarsh Festival - elegies in a country church | reviews, news & interviews

Anthony Marwood and Friends, Peasmarsh Festival - elegies in a country church

Anthony Marwood and Friends, Peasmarsh Festival - elegies in a country church

World-class chamber music in a secluded corner of Sussex

A final flourish for Elgar from violinists Anthony Marwood and Mark Steinberg, pianist Huw Watkins, cellist Edvard Pogossian and viola-player Hsin-Yun Huang Both performance images by Walter van Dyk

A magnificent riven oak with gnarly branches stands in the secluded graveyard of SS Peter and Paul's Church Peasmarsh, near Rye. Transport it in your mind to Flexham Park in a very different part of Sussex, imagine it struck by lightning and it could be one of that twisted group which Elgar encountered on a short walk from his Bedham cottage in the summer of 1918, subsequently permeating his massive and masterly Piano Quintet with the ghost  story surrounding them.

At any rate, having such an epic work conjured by top musicians in the Peasmarsh church made it seem as if we were close to the source of Elgar's nature worship.

The Peasmarsh Festival, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is a very English project, albeit with international artists. Its driving forces are leading violinist and local resident Anthony Marwood and cellist Richard Lester, celebrated both as soloists and for their work with the Florestan Trio to 2011 (there will be a reunion with pianist Susan Tomes, among other distinguished performers, in the celebratory Wigmore concert on 25 November). From humble beginnings their ambition has stretched to four days of concerts - I just missed the big one, with the Britten Sinfonia in the rather bigger church of St Mary's Rye on Saturday night - and well-supported educational work with local schools.

The construction of the main playing area - a semi-circular platform in front of the organ in the nave - encourages intimacy and involvement from the amphitheatre of listeners, a very different experience from squarely facing instrumentalists playing before or behind a chancel arch (this one, though splendid in its Norman design, with two lions carved in ironstone, is too narrow for any activity within). The church at PeasmarshThey can even push boundaries with their loyal, mostly local audience. The annual late-night spot has (un)traditionally been the spotlight for experiment. This year Marwood showed his festival planner's genius by interleaving Purcell Fantasias for strings with his own performances of Italian avant-garde-ist Salvatore Sciarrino's Sei Capricci for solo violin, played at the bell-tower end of the church. In the first place, I've never taken as much pleasure from soporific consorts of viols playing the Purcell as I did from this group (first violinist of the Brentano Quartet Mark Steinberg, viola player Hsin-Yun Huang, cellists Lester and Edvard Pogossian). The chromatics and the fugal writing seemed to take us forwards not only to Bach but to the Haydn and Beethoven quartets.

More important still, the juxtaposition, as in any imaginative programme, cast both composers in a fresh light. You have to wonder why Sciarrino veers so drastically away from letting the violin do what it does best - to sing - and into the rarefied world of sometimes feathery, sometimes scratcy harmonics (according to Richard Wigmore's note, when Carolin Widmann asked him why, he replied "Because I am harmonics"). But here these ghostly variations on Paganini's 24 Caprices were like the spectral interstices, the numinal world, around the relative solidity of Purcell's praise-singing. And after the last, almost symphonic Capriccio, Marwood joined his colleagues for the magnificent Purcell Fantasia Upon One Note, the only one of his set for five players.

Ghosts hovered around the early evening concert, too - and not just in the elegies of 1918. Beethoven's early C minor String Trio is full of doubts, introspections and fury between its more elegant utterances. Marwood is now a master both of the civilised turn of phrase and the eruptions; Huang and Lester, predictably, were very much in turn with the riven nature of the piece (all three pictured below). To hear the syncopated drive of the Scherzo at such close quarters was practically to levitate with the players. Trio at Peasmarsh FestivalEnter pianist (and composer) Huw Watkins to join Steinberg in launching the quirky fanfares of Hindemith's E flat major Violin Sonata, another early work but with the mature weight of grief behind it. Hindemith's father was killed in Flanders; he was serving in the German army himself when he began an impressive set of six sonatas. The exuberance of the cheerful if wayward opener gives way to what the composer calls "a slow and solemn dance", a sarabande which may have been intended as the middle movement but ends the short, meaningful sonata with absolute elegiac rightness.

The 61-year old Elgar was already, as he himself put it, "a knight of ghosts and shadows" when that same year he rented the cottage of Brinkwells near Fittleworth in West Sussex. Clearly the chanting of the Spanish monks, somewhat ludicrously assigned the roles of those lightning-struck trees, is the starting-point, but the composer's infatuation with Brahms and Schumann shows in the personal and extrovert veins which follow, transfigured into a very individual elegy bursting with ideas; the lilting Moorish dance is another, unanticipated strand. The players rose passionately to the challenge, with heartbreaking post-Brahmsian eloquence from Huang and Pogossian in the central Adagio and ghost-whispers where necessary. They all understood that the Falstaffian robustness with which the finale tries to battle all the ghosts remains a personal matter, however emphatic the triumph. No one in this very vocal and attentive audience seemed unmoved at the end.

Marwood showed his festival planner's genius by interleaving Purcell Fantasias for strings with Sciarrino's Sei Capricci


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