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Festival remains a massive achievement; REVIEW: Presteigne Festival, August 21-27 ????? .....

Celebrating the great, reviving the neglected, defining eras, centenaries offer handy pegs for festival directors to hang programmes on, and this year's Presteigne Festival was no exception.

Arguably the most important British composer since Henry Purcell, and born an unbelievable 100 years ago, Benjamin Britten has long been a firm favourite of festival director George Vass.

Proceedings opened ambitiously with two one-act operas. Commissioned by the festival, and setting a biblical libretto by Clara Glynn, Sally Beamish's tautly-written Hagar in the Wilderness was impressive despite makeshift staging. Beamish's score makes clever use of a quintet of disparate instruments and her exemplary word setting was sung with great clarity by soprano Kirsty Hopkins in the title role, and with stentorian power by Owen Gilhooly as the overbearing Abraham. It was followed by Britten's Curlew River, which can roughly be described as a Japanese Noh play transmuted to a Fenland abbey.

The next day saw Piano in the Afternoon, a recital by the impressive Clare Hammond featuring no fewer than six living composers. She returned later to join the wonderful Badke String Quartet in Shostakovitch's enigmatic Piano Quintet, which followed the finely-wrought first quartets of Britten and Ian Wilson. She was also pianist and director of the Virtuoso Soloists and, in the final concert, the soloist in Gabriel Jackson's smile-raising Piano Concerto.

On the rostrum George Vass directed his youthful and espert Festival Orchestra in attractive works by extant composers sandwiched between 20th century neo-classical masterworks by Lennox Berkeley and Stravinsky.

You certainly get your money's worth at Presteigne. "Less is more" is definitely not George Vass' motto.

The non-stop programme culminated in Gabriel Jackson's telling Requiem - an extensive work that would almost have been enough on its own. Instead, it shared space with four other intensely-written works, testing the stamina of performers. Even after attending eight concerts, half-a-dozen pre-concert talks and an exhibition at Sir Sidney Nolan's former home that revealed Britten's association with the artist, one was still aware that one had barely scratched the surface of the magical and unique annual event that is the Presteigne Festival. It remains a massive achievement.

| John Rushby-Smith
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Title Annotation:Features; Review
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 30, 2013
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