Lichfield Festival comes to a close with stellar performances - review
The 38th Lichfield Festival - well established as the premier music and arts festival in the West Midlands region - came to a gloriously rousing conclusion with a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
There’s a risk that such popular works can prove disappointing simply because of over-familiarity, but under the baton of Latvian-born conductor Ainars Rubikis on Saturday at the city’s cathedral, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales created a tremendously fresh feel to Elgar’s masterpiece.
The concert had opened with mezzo-soprano Polly Leech as a soloist in another Elgar work, Sea Pictures, a piece originally written for soprano but given greater warmth and depth by its conversion to the lower voice. And what gorgeously dark tones Leech can produce - the lyrics by various poets may be fairly trivial, but the sound was wonderful.
Between the two Elgar works, the dynamic young Romanian-born cellist Andrei Ionita gave a passionate performance of Shostakovich’s deeply melancholic Cello Concerto No. 1, making good use of space in the unaccompanied cadenza to heighten the drama.
Earlier on Saturday, young Australian violinist Emily Sun also created plenty of drama in performances of sonatas by Faure and Franck at Wade Street Church, but her German-Japanese pianist Caterina Grewe was on this occasion too heavy handed in the reverberant acoustics of the small building - immaculate finger work, but she needed to think about the character of the performance space as well as the notes. The violinist had to work rather too hard to ascend through the pianistic thunderclouds.
In a Friday lunchtime concert at Wade Street Church, the young Hong Kong- born flute virtuouso Sirius Chang projected a marvellous musical personality combined with technical prowess in works by Faure, Dutilleux, Chaminade and Poulenc, sparklingly accompanied by pianist Kumi Matuso. Another flute feature, The Magic Flute Dances, by festival composer-in-residence Jonathan Dove, was packed with witty ideas, echoing phrases from Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, but it really needs some brutal editing.
The splendid vocal group Black Voices presented an enjoyable and very well received tribute to legendary singer-pianist Nina Simone on Friday evening at the cathedral. The group was the support act at Simone’s last UK concert in Brighton before her death in 2003, and they have tremendous enthusiasm for her music.
All the strongest pieces in the Lichfield show featured the five regular singers in soulful ensembles, augumented by four more voices. It was odd that they chose to sing several “standard” songs recorded by Simone, but not really directly associated with her. These included Summertime from the musical Porgy and Bess, and Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday - yet they missed out some great Simone hits such as I Put A Spell On You.
Overall, the 38th Lichfield Festival was a huge success, with performances by outstanding classical, jazz, folk, gospel, drama and ballet stars in many venues around the city. It proved to be a real credit to the new festival director Damian Thantrey and staff - plus a local army of volunteers.
By John Watson