World premieres have been a feature of the Cheltenham Music Festival right from its creation. In its very first edition in June 1945, Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes was so new – premiered just the week before – that the Sea Interludes he conducted didn’t yet have that title. The “Interludes and Dances from Peter Grimes” were conducted by the composer himself, part of the three evening festival concerts scheduled. Since then, the Regency town’s festival has expanded to two weeks, and its ambitious 75th anniversary season includes twenty world premieres and some top international talents, drawn together by Artistic Director Alison Balsom.

In Cheltenham Town Hall ©
In Cheltenham Town Hall

Orchestral concerts still form a sturdy central pillar to the festival programme, launched in grand style by the London Symphony Orchestra. Conducted by Elim Chan, the first female winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in 2014, the LSO plays two mighty warhorses of the Russian repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s impassioned Violin Concerto (featuring Emmanuel Tjeknavorian – son of Armenian conductor, Loris) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, his Arabian Nights-inspired symphonic suite. But the concert opens with a new work commissioned from Dani Howard, who had a great recent success with Robin Hood for The Opera Story.

Balsom herself plays the world premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Trumpet Concerto, performed with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Musgrave has a long history with the festival; her first piece commissioned by the festival was her Piano Sonata no. 2 back in 1956. The rarity on the programme is the Second Symphony by Ruth Gipps, composed in 1945. Gipps was a Sussex-born composer whose music deserves to be heard much more widely. It owes much to Vaughan Williams in style and it can be no accident that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has programmed it alongside the glorious Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida is woefully under-performed. Perhaps the suite from the opera will encourage more listeners to explore this score.

Classical Mixtape in Tewkesbury Abbey ©
Classical Mixtape in Tewkesbury Abbey

Anna Clyne is writing a new work for saxophonist Jess Gillam, to be performed as part of the Manchester Camerata’s concert on 11th July. Gillam was the first saxophonist to reach the final of BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and has captured the public imagination with her enthusiastic promotion of the place of the saxophone in the classical world.

Baroque classics are well represented in the Academy of Ancient Music’s concert featuring star violinist Nicola Benedetti. Handel and Vivaldi take centre stage of concertos and sonatas, including a mystery item which is subject to an audience vote. Let’s hope there’s a clear winner!

Cheltenham also has a thriving chamber music programme, with most of the recitals taking place in the Regency splendour of The Pittville Pump Room, the last and largest of the spa buildings to be built in the town. The Nash Ensemble are old friends to the festival. Their programme balances the familiar – Haydn’s “Sunrise” String Quartet and Dvořák’s joyous Piano Quintet no. 2 – with the contemporary – Ollie Knussen’s Masks and a new work for flute and string trio by Judith Weir. The French Quatuor Arod are fast building an excellent reputation. For the first of their two recitals, they are joined by a number of guests for a varied programme concluding with Brahms’ F minor Piano Quintet. The Castalian String Quartet include the world premiere of a new work by Grace Evangeline-Mason, while two works by Dobrinka Tabakova – On a Bench in the Shade and a new commission – feature in the Heath Quartet’s line-up.

Pittville Pump Rooms ©
Pittville Pump Rooms

The Pump Room is also host to the ORA Singers who transport us to the 16th century to celebrate the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Tudor Madrigals are interwoven with more recent works, setting Shakespeare and other Elizabethan texts.

Lucy Crowe’s “Female Portraits” recital features betrayed women, eroticism and chastity in Lieder literature, including Schubert’s Gretchen, Suleika and Silvia. She opens her programme with the world premiere of Youth Gone by Jonathan Dove. The festival’s promotion of female composers also sees a tempting recital from the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective ranging from Lili Boulanger to Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach’s excellent Piano Quintet.

One of the best known women composers is Clara Schumann, whose 200th anniversary is marked on 6th July with Schumann Square, an immersive chamber music event which takes place in four Regency houses in Cheltenham’s Imperial Square and Royal Parade. Audiences can drop in on recitals by Tom Poster, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Xuefei Yang, Elena Urioste and Camille Thomas – the perfect way to investigate a fascinating composer.

This article was sponsored by Cheltenham Music Festival.