It takes a bold festival director to devise an entire programme of virtually unknown choral and orchestral items and two premières. An evening devoted to six living composers – even if the British, Finnish and Latvian names were familiar – would, anywhere else, raise box office concerns as to the concert’s financial viability. Except that this is the Presteigne Festival, and such is the confidence in George Vass (Artistic Director since 1992) that regulars know that there will always be at least one attractive or significant work in each concert even if none of the works are known. An adventurous programme policy and the cultivation of contemporary composers (there were five sitting near me on Sunday evening) is central to Presteigne’s artistic vision which with each passing year creates a buzz of excitement and strong audience figures.

© Choir Royal Holloway
© Choir Royal Holloway
Vass’ knack for finding just the right choral or orchestral piece is legendary and Sunday’s programme, given by the Choir of Royal Holloway (Musical Director Rupert Gough) and the Presteigne Festival Orchestra, included several accessible works. Pēteris Vasks relatively recent string piece Epifania was particularly impressive. First performed in 2011, its tranquil lyricism and gentle counterpoint were beautifully shaped and its cumulative impact by the end drew from one composer on my right, the singular adjective “magical”. In just under ten minutes Vasks had fashioned a work that would remain in my head long after this UK première.

It was with a work of similar duration that the concert began – Gabriel Jackson’s Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God. Commissioned by the City of London Sinfonia, its busy string textures and undemanding but attractive choral writing inhabits Jackson’s characteristic luminosity. The Royal Holloway sopranos had no difficulty in conveying the “message of hope through beauty” that Estonian poet Doris Kareva sought to create in her collection Shape of Time from which the text derives.

Another verse collection – A Shropshire Lad – provided inspiration for David Matthews whose Three Housman Songs, received their world première in newly revised versions for soprano and string orchestra. Gillian Keith was the silvery-toned soloist and, although her performance was poised, she could not quite disguise vocal fatigue when it came to some of Matthews’ more instrumental vocal lines. It was wonderfully refreshing to hear “Loveliest of Trees” with a Japanese tinge and “Far in a western brookland” (so memorable in Ivor Gurney’s setting) was given what seemed to me a bittersweet twist. The setting of “In valleys green and still”, about a pair of lovers, proved no less imaginative with effective contribution from a solo viola.

The pastoral idyll continued in Toby Young’s new setting of William Blake’s poem Love and Harmony. While the programme note suggested considerable thought in its design, its manner revealed no distinctly individual style, although there was much warmth of expression in the manner of its execution.

Following the interval, and on a different inspirational plane, came Canto III:“A Portrait of the Artist at a Certain Moment” by Einojuhani Rautavaara. It’s a lavishly sonorous and bi-tonal work from 1972 that in places bears some kinship with Béla Bartók, (and even Charles Ives) and builds towards a powerful climax. With only 19 players (twice that figure might have better suited the divisi writing) George Vass brought vivid detail and colour to this opulent score and made clear the tremendous rapport he has with these young musicians.

This fruitful partnership continued in the closing offering: Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych, a commemorative work lasting some 18 minutes and sourced from an anthology of English, Egyptian and Persian texts. Choir and strings gave a spirited response to the pulsing rhythms and edgy choral writing of “Threnody” and in the meditative “As We Remember Them”, the soprano soloist found an appropriately consoling tone. The final part, “From Heaven distilled a clemency”, (a reshaping of earlier passages) provided further evidence of O’Regan’s attractive choral style and, most significantly, the close bond between choir and orchestra under Vass’ invigorating direction. As usual in Presteigne, another bold programme drew prolonged appreciation.