Cheltenham Music Festival’s guest curator Jules Buckley may be best known for his pioneering work bringing funk and grime to the classical concert hall, but his programme for the 2020 festival focuses on the classical heavyweights: Mahler, Shostakovich and of course, Beethoven. Fully in keeping with the festival’s contemporary spirit, this comes with a twist – we get Bach interspersed with The Beatles and no shortage of world premieres, as if re-contextualizing the works of these classical titans.

Gloucester Cathedral © stillmovingmedia
Gloucester Cathedral
© stillmovingmedia

Birthday boy Beethoven dominates the programme, his seventh and eighth symphonies performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Bliss Ensemble respectively. Principal conductor designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in Beethoven’s epic symphony alongside Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto. Perhaps Saint-Saëns most popular piano concerto  –  its symphonic scope and dazzling saltarella finale should make for a thrillingly epic performance in the hands of soloist Alice-Sara Ott. Beethoven’s playful eighth symphony, with its quirky accented rhythms, is performed in an arrangement for wind band by clarinettist Julian Bliss and his wind ensemble, paired with the composer’s early Octet. This concert also features a work by Franz Krommer, a contemporary of Beethoven’s best known for his wind writing.

Beethoven’s extensive chamber music output is well represented, starting from the opening weekend ‘prelude’ offering. Over the course of four concerts, Katy Hamilton presents a range of much-loved and lesser-known chamber pieces, including two of Beethoven’s opus 1 piano trios performed by the aptly-named Leonore Piano Trio. Much in Jules Barkley’s spirit of juxtaposition, Matthew Barley performs Beethoven’s sonatas alongside his own compositions and the fast-rising 20-year old Ben Goldscheider performs Beethoven’s Horn Sonata between works by Jörg Widmann and York Bowen. The Albion and Carducci quartets offer Beethoven’s early and late string quartets respectively, and a sure highlight of the festival comes with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Imogen Cooper in Beethoven’s songs. 

Mahler gets star billing, opening the festival with his Das Lied von der Erde. Nicholas Collon conducts star soloists Sarah Connolly and Andrew Staples in Iain Farrington’s arrangement. Collon’s Aurora Orchestra will surely bring out fresh aspects of Mahler’s rich orchestration in this arrangement for chamber orchestra, but for those desiring the truly mammoth forces associated with Mahler, Adrian Partington leads the British Sinfonietta in Mahler’s eighth symphony in the majestic setting of Gloucester Cathedral. Nicknamed the “symphony of a thousand”, this concert brings together some of Britain’s most celebrated singers alongside the choristers of Gloucester cathedral and the South Cotswold Choral Group. 

Other symphonic offerings include the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a crowd-pleasing programme, with chief conductor Vasily Petrenko’s celebrated interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique. They are joined by violinist Tasmin Little in Brahms’ epic violin concerto – Little recently announced that she would be retiring from the performing stage in summer 2020, so the chance to see her brilliant musicianship in action should not be missed. On the other end of the musical spectrum, guest curator Jules Buckley brings his Heritage Orchestra to perform works by Giorgio Moroder. Known as the “father of disco”, the Italian composer has produced songs for performers ranging from Donna Summer and David Bowie to Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson. Moroder is also known for his film soundtracks, including American Gigolo and the Oscar-winning Midnight Express – surely the first time Richard Gere has been associated with the Cheltenham Music Festival!

Pittville Pump Rooms © stillmovingmedia
Pittville Pump Rooms
© stillmovingmedia

As always, the Regency spa confines of the Pittville Pump Room play host to a varied chamber music programme, including star guitarist Miloš Karadaglić. The Montenegrin guitarist offers a wide-ranging programme including works by Albéniz and Granados that featured on the debut album that made him a worldwide star. These are bookended by arrangements of Bach and The Beatles, very much in the creative vein of Jules Buckley’s programming. The Kanneh-Masons make a much-awaited reappearance at the festival, performing piano trios by Haydn, Fauré, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich – a thrilling chance to see one of classical music’s most talented families at work. The chamber music of Shostakovich recurs throughout the festival: the fast-rising Aris Quartet perform the popular Eighth Quartet and the intense Piano Quintet joined by pianist Elisabeth Brauss, who later returns with violinist Johan Dalene and cellist Anastaia Kobekina for the Second Piano Trio.

For those wanting to explore more obscure repertoire, violinist Rachel Podger joins Sestina Music in a semi-staged performance by Thomas Guthrie. Guthrie reimagines the music of Bach and his uncle Johann Christian in a meditation of love and loss, integrating choral music by both Bachs with the epic second partita for solo violin. Popular and less-well-known music by Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert, Thayer and Sakamoto are the backdrop to New English Ballet Theatre’s programme, featuring the creative and diverse choreography of Wayne Eagling and Erico Montes among others. In one of the most intriguing recitals of the festival, teenage percussionist Alexander Pullen offers works by Lorick, Psathas, Glassock and Oetomo. Similarly, organist Anna Lapwood presents Britten and Messiaen amongst world premieres by Fardon and Waley-Cohen – something new for even the most experienced of concertgoers. 

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This article was sponsored by the Cheltenham Music Festival.