Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Wigmore Hall comes to church on the hill

JUST outside High Wycombe, the village of West Wycombe sits at the foot of West Wycombe Hill.

JUST outside High Wycombe, the village of West Wycombe sits at the foot of West Wycombe Hill.

A stream of cars winds up the narrow track to the summit, where the golden ball on the tower of the 18th Century Church of St Lawrence shines above the trees.

Inside the church, the intimate surroundings and the sympathetic acoustic of the beautiful rococo interior provide a perfect atmosphere for chamber music.

The billing for the three-day series is more like a Wigmore Hall line-up. But then this is the West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival, where Lawrence Power, internationally acclaimed Wycombe-born violist, never fails to assemble some of the UK’s and world’s top names to create the most beautiful and dynamic chamber music on offer anywhere.

Performers included violinists Anthony Marwood, Stephanie Gonley and Annabelle Meare, violist Maxim Rysanov, cellist Bjorg Lewis, horn player Richard Watkins and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips.

Continuing his policy of bold programming, Power introduces not only pieces by rarely heard composers but also rarely heard compositions by household names.

His knack for digging up little-known works and injecting them with such enormous enthusiasm makes you wonder why they are not already standard repertoire.

You also come to realise that he is immensely inspiring, a natural leader, incredibly passionate and has a flawless technique.

Friday evening’s eclectic concert began with Prokofiev’s Morning Serenade and Dance of the Mandolins for two violas and piano and Britten’s arrangement of Frank Bridge’s There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook for viola and piano, both beautifully performed.

This was followed by Thomas Ades’ Darkness Visible — a piano solo based on a Dowland lute piece, whose ghostly quality was conveyed perfectly by Crawford-Phillips.

Paganini’s Quartet No15 for Viola, Guitar, Violin and Cello was the composer’s opportunity to favour the viola. Power turned it into a dynamic romp with scintillating virtuoso passages, while allowing the guitar some prominence in the central trio.

Taneyev’s Piano Quintet Op 30 was an amazing technical feat by all players, led fervently by Power.

Although it had its warmer moments, especially in the Scherzo’s Trio, the work is predominantly a tour de force of construction.

A massive coda brought it to a triumphant end, eliciting prolonged curtain calls.

The gala concert on Saturday evening involved a chamber orchestra based around section leaders from the main London orchestras.

Crawford-Phillips gave a scintillating account of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E Flat Major K449, while directing the orchestra from the keyboard.

Then came Peter Maxwell Davies’s Sea Eagle for Solo Horn, written specially for the world-renowned soloist Richard Watkins. His playing was immaculate and highly evocative.

Another surprise was K A Hartman’s Concerto Funèbre for violin and orchestra. This stark, bitter anti-Nazi work with frequently changing moods was so demanding that the audience was left stunned by Power’s technical mastery.

It was then back with some relief to Mozart and his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra K364. The long and beautiful dialogue was expressed to perfection by Lawrence Power and Anthony Marwood.

Helped by the sensitive accompaniment of top quality instrumentalists, this could not fail to create a fitting close and gave the packed house a chance to show their full appreciation.

The festival’s atmosphere is clearly special for performers and audience alike.

If you wish to savour this for yourself, make a note now of next year’s festival dates — Thursday, September 14, to Saturday, September 16 — and get your name on the mailing list by emailing westwycombefestival@ gmail.com.

Review: Trevor Howell

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