There can’t be many music festivals where it is possible to hear a pianist rehearse a new concerto while you swim through the limpid waters of the Mediterranean, but this is Lerici, on Italy’s spectacular Ligurian coast, where things are just a little bit different. This year the festival is taking place in an open-air enclosure right on the seafront, so lapping waves, chugging boats, barking dogs, passing scooters and excitable children all add their distinct accompaniment to the music on stage.

Alison Balsom and Gianluca Marcianò
© Lerici Music Festival

From the water, as a I admired the ice-cream coloured villas that perch so picturesquely on the hillside, I heard the Italian pianist Costanza Principe rehearse sections of American composer David Winkler’s second piano concerto, subtitled “Percy Bysshe Shelley”. This is the bicentenary of the poet’s death, drowned in a storm off the coast here in July 1822 and so, naturally, the festival has taken Shelley as its theme this year.

This particular concert featured not one but two world premieres of works inspired by the poet: the Winkler concerto and a piece by Italian composer Cristian Carrara, which took the title of Shelley’s poem Music, when soft voices die, a favourite text among song and choral composers (Charles Wood, Hubert Parry and Ralph Vaughan Williams among them). Carrara chose to write purely for orchestra, in a firmly neo-romantic style. This is a composer who rejects the astringent and dissonant world of the 20th century: his realm is entirely tonal and lyrical. His tone poem’s dark opening seemed to prefigure Shelley’s demise before blossoming into a central theme of descending intervals that grew in intensity towards the work’s climax. Its careful construction was clearly evident through conductor Giancarlo Marcianò’s meticulous direction, even if it was not always played with total conviction by the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini.

There was no doubting the conviction of star soloist Alison Balsom in the piece that followed, Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat major. Battling the evening heat, she never once lost her composure or sense of line. Her immaculate, cantabile phrasing drove the piece along, with the orchestra responding gamely to the playful Mozartian mood of the first movement. She brought an almost Chet Baker-like intimacy to the beguiling, contemplative slow movement before charging into the brio finale with an impressive display of triple-tongued bugle calls. From there it was a sparkling race to the finish, a thrilling ride at full gallop, achieved with total assurance.

Constanza Principe
© Lerici Music Festival

A doomy foreboding opened Winkler’s new piano concerto, much like Carrara’s piece. Soon we were out riding through uncertain waters, the woodwind and strings rising and falling in great waves. The piano crashed in with questing, scrambling figures as the orchestral writing grew in intensity... and became very loud. A none-too-subtle descending theme hammered its way through, often drowning the delicate filigree of the piano writing in an over-long, portentous first movement.

No relief was offered in the second movement, which quickly left its more reflective opening to return to the strong rhythmical pounding of the first. Soloist Costanza Principe struggled bravely but was too often interrupted by over-emphatic, poorly played interjections from the orchestra. A mild seasickness cast a pall over the closing pages of this movement, with declamatory passages making big demands on Principe’s technique as she scrabbled up and down the keyboard.

By now the final movement had very little left to say, other than to continue the turmoil and anguish of the preceding two. Many statements were made but with little sense of purpose or direction. Climax followed climax. On it sprawled with sparse relief offered to either performers or audience. Principe did her best to hold her line, but was too often overwhelmed by the crashing orchestra, not sufficiently held in check by Marcianò, the musician at the heart of his generous home-town festival. His presence surely helps attract so many top-flight artists including, yet to perform, Sir Bryn Terfel and Christian Blackshaw.

There were more rewarding – though entirely different – new works inspired by poetry performed the night before, when soprano Melinda Hughes and pianist Jeremy Limb presented a varied programme, including premieres of their arrangements of poems by Roger McGough. Wit, grace, charm and supreme musicality shone through, and all executed with admirable economy.

Stephen's accommodation was funded by the Lerici Music Festival