The highlight of the Buxton International Festival this year was the concert given by the strings of the Manchester Camerata. It was the afternoon of the hottest day ever recorded in much of the UK and Buxton was sweltering. The performance had wisely been moved from the glass-sided Octagon to the cool St John’s Church. The acoustics of the venue proved much kinder to the players today than to the singers and pianos I heard here just a week ago. The orchestra played without a conductor, directed by leader Caroline Pether, and their playing was simply superb throughout. Individual players gave polished solos equalling the fine performance of the whole orchestra.

© Mo El-Fatih

To begin, we had two recent pieces, very different from each other, both very engaging and I hope to hear both again very soon. Shiva Feshareki’s Venus/Zoreh (2018) is, as the programme note states, “a continuous crescendo in both volume and textural complexity leading to an abrupt cut-off” but that description does not do it justice. The title refers to the planet Venus and to the composer’s mother whose name is Zoreh, meaning Venus or morning star in Persian. The music has something fresh about it, rising out of nothing to a glorious richness and was stunningly beautiful.

The title of Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte is teasingly plain. Shaw wrote it in 2011 in response to a performance of a Haydn string quartet and revised it for string orchestra in 2014. It uses a dazzling array of string techniques resulting in some surprising murmurs, groans and tinkles alongside passages that could have come from Haydn. The piece ended unexpectedly with a lovely cello solo. It was all great fun in the spirit of Haydn.

The third piece was better known but hardly a concert staple. Jess Gillam joined the Camerata for Glazunov’s Concerto in E flat major for alto saxophone and strings. The saxophone has become so closely associated with jazz that it is easy to overlook its classical pedigree. Gillam has been championing her instrument for several years now and her performance of this concerto should convert anyone who needed persuading. It is a remarkably concise work, lasting about a quarter of an hour and is lyrical and melodic. Gillam blended nicely with the strings when required and contrasted with them at other times. She managed the changing dynamics with finesse, showed off her virtuosity and brought out the humour of the piece.

After three such enjoyable and unusual pieces the second half of the concert brought us much more familiar but no less enjoyable fare. The solo quartet in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was performed not by the principal players of the orchestra but by the Brodsky Quartet who, like the Manchester Camerata, are celebrating their 50th birthday this year. Having the solo quartet more sharply distinguished from the main body of players added an extra dimension. There was a deep intensity in the playing of the quartet and the orchestra from the opening flourish to the final pizzicato chord. The joyful outbursts contrasted with the serious explorations in a way that revealed new aspects of a much-loved work.

Finally we had Tchaikovsky’s sunny Souvenir de Florence in the arrangement for string orchestra by Anton Seidl. Once again the Camerata shed new light on a familiar piece, revelling in its bouncy rhythms and inspiring tunes. There was an excitement and infectious enthusiasm throughout this wonderful performance of the Tchaikovsky – as in the rest of this excellent programme.